Editors & Endings

I read a great book this weekend that would have been much better with a little help from an editor. As I started to read the novel, I was thinking “This person is so good. Why is s/he not traditionally published? Why isn’t there a movie deal on the table?” Sure, there were a few typos, maybe ten in the entire book. An editor would have caught those, but okay, the story is so good, I just read on.

And then I reached the end. Reader, it wasn’t good. It didn’t give that sense of completion a great ending always strives to achieve. It was like this person just stopped typing. And I felt really bad for that author, because an editor would have helped improve the weak conclusion. My editor at The Wild Rose Press spotted the sloppy ending of Blue Heaven, my soon to be released novel, right away. It was the first comment she offered me. And when she said it, I knew she was right. I scrapped 50 or so pages and got back to work.

As much as I love the indie community, everyone in it should have an editor. I have two degrees in English literature, taught writing to college students for almost two decades and worked as a staff reviewer in  two top trade magazines. I’ve read widely and have given editing advice to thousands of college freshmen. And I still need my editor to get my novel right.

About those college freshman…by far the most common problem I see in their essays is not grammar or usage issues, it’s the conclusion. College students can’t wait for the assignment to be over, so many of them dash off a weak conclusion. Novelists can’t afford to do that. Our endings should wrap up the story, but more, they should offer one last special something for the reader. Brilliant endings are just as important as fabulous openings. Conclusions can make or break a book. If the ending doesn’t work, that’s likely all a reader will remember. If an ending is special in some way, readers will remember that, too. And they’ll buy your next book.

Discovering Theme

Alice Munro has a new book of stories out. In Dear Life, the final four stories are as close to memoir, she says, that she’ll ever write. I was disappointed when a reviewer mentioned that the quartet takes place when Munro was a young girl growing up on a fox farm in Ontario, Canada. She’s written about that before. What I hungered for were stories about her adult life, her writing life.

Munro is one of the few fiction writers who has been successful with  that short form, bringing out a dozen or so books. I’ve read them all. Twice. But so far, not the new book. Reviews can sometimes dissuade me and one in particular, by Sam Sacks, regarding Munro’s themes, caught me up in surprise. Sacks says that “…her themes are psychological estrangement, spiritual emptiness, sexual degradation and the pitifulness of death.” Sacks goes on to comment that  Munro’s overall take on life, at least in her stories, is “methodical bleakness.”

Wow. I think I probably have a naturally bleak outlook on life, because I love Munro’s stories and think they are beautiful. The writing is elegant and crisp, the stories compelling, but more, her themes strike my soul in a way that Sacks captured through close examination. The review made me think about my own themes. How do I hold up against Munro? Do I love her work because her themes mirror my own? I wish:)

Yes with psychological estrangement, no to spiritual emptiness. I’m spiritually optimistic, but if anything of my spiritual nature translates into fiction, I don’t see it. That’s my loss, and some day, when I’m braver than today, I intend to correct it.

Sexual degradation–yes, I find to my surprise that all of my work has that undercurrent. Somebody somewhere is sexually degrading someone else in my novels. Sometimes they do it to themselves. In The Paris Notebook, that theme was mostly excised from the text by my editor. Later, I used the story of self-degradation as a gift to readers of my blog. Sarah’s Survival Guide can be read right on my website or downloaded as PDF. So that theme was not lost, just placed elsewhere.

My novels are more about life than death, and I have not really explored the theme of death in fiction. I’m still getting used to experiencing it in life–when loved ones die, the grief of it. When they sicken and a sad slide into senility or physical incapacity begins, yes, it is pitiful. I’ve always thought it was more than pitiful, horrific in fact.

Except at a distance, like when Cher’s grandmother dies in flashback in Sister Issues, I don’t feel skilled enough to take on death in my fiction; it’s difficult enough for me to deal with in real life. In real life, I think of it every day. I mourn friends who have passed; I plan my own exit strategy. (Move to Oregon or Washington). Looking deeply into Munro’s stories, I see the shallowness of my own themes. But, also, I would rather write hopeful stories than bleak ones.

10 Years!

I can’t believe the ten year anniversary of this blog slipped away without a mention. It was Monday, so I’m at least in the same week. Two years ago, I decided I was going to self-publish all my novels, put them on the website for free, and stop blogging. Just have a static website where people could come and read free books. That was my actual plan.

Things never go the way I plan. First, I decided to do the 99 cent thing with Kindle. I liked it, but I’m not rich yet. Then I got a publishing contract with The Wild Rose Press and I liked that even more. I even managed to assemble a free story edited out of TWRP novel. So at least one thing here is free:)

So, three publications was all I could manage in two years. I did a lot of teaching that first year, but the second  year I was mostly just writing. I’m taking this fall and winter semesters off too. Just so I can maybe finish my “publish all my novels by any means possible” in as timely a manner as I am able. This is my entire bucket list. Get those books out!

Then there’s the “no more blog” thing. Ha! This reminds me of when I was 28 saying “if I don’t have a book out by 30 I’ll quit writing” Double ha. Keeping the blog, keeping the title of the blog, and maybe mixing up the content a bit. Got my new design. I had other big content-related plans for this blog, and I am still going to get them to you–after the conference Saturday.

This is not a commercial for our Detroit Working Writers conference this Saturday. But you can still sign up at the door:) Or shoot me an email:))

Yesterday I wanted to post about all the stuff that goes wrong when you’re planning an event with so many moving parts. As conference chair, I’ve been treating this as a graduation party, except the food is catered and everyone gets a Swag Bag. Oh, and there are workshops. So really it’s nothing like planning a graduation party. Or even a wedding. Except they all require lots of time and effort and I have (to my surprise) have not had a nervous breakdown. Maybe because I had a ton of help. 20 volunteers! Doing everything from registration to leading workshops to guarding the bookseller’s table.

I may be the only one who thinks things are going great. We are having a meeting two weeks after the conference where we will talk about if we want to do this again, what we can do better, where we can patch up the cracks. So I’ll be basically listening to a critique of my event planning skills. Should be fun.

Meanwhile, happy blog anniversary to me!


Indie vs ePub

I have three published books, published three different ways. I will never, ever, ever again self-publish because it is way too difficult, costs too much, and the books take up a lot of room in my closet. It was right at the time, but not going forward. My next book was an indie novel and then I had a novel ePubbed just a few months later. So I got to compare.

What’s the difference? With self-publishing you do everything. With indie publishing, Kindle does a lot, but not all, of the work. For me, ePubbing wins and here’s why. They give me an editor. They hire a cover artist. They print the book as well as eFormat. They get the finished product out there to an impressive list of reviewers. They distribute and sell the book to readers on their website, and also set it up for sale on Kindle and Amazon. 

Call me lazy, but I really like how much The Wild Rose Press did for me. It was by far the easiest. Well, not in terms of editing. And the fact that they only publish romances sets me some guidelines I’d rather not follow (like losing subplots). But really, thinking about all the novels I have ready to roll, two of them are already romances.

Just to make it easy on myself, I’m going to try to publish the romances before I tackle the revisions on my sequel to Sister Issues, which is not a romance, but a family drama. I have two more novels, paranormals with love stories, so maybe they’re paranormal romances.

So for awhile I’ll stick with TWRP and the next time I go indie, I’ll know I have to hire an editor, a cover artist, and a formatter who can get my book into print as well as eFormat.

Indie Wonderland

New writers may well be confused by the superfine distinctions between self-published, vanity published, e-published and indie published.

I self-published my first book, a non-fiction writing manual, Your Words, Your Story, because I wanted to use it in the classroom as soon as possible. I knew from experience that trying to  traditionally publish a book takes years, so I decided to go it alone. What self-publishing means is that the author pays a printer to print copies of her book. She sets up a small press, buys her own ISBN number, writes a letter to the Library of Congress and later sends copies of books to them so they can be filed along with a jillion other books. Distribution can be a problem, but I had a built-in source–my college bookstore.

Self-publishing was a difficult endeavor, and had I known how much trouble it would be, I might not have done it. I hired out some of the work, formatting, design, cover image. The entire venture cost me about $3000 and I recouped that money quickly. Now I sell the digital form of that book on Kindle for 99 cents, and to my surprise people other than my students buy it.

The difference between self-publishing and vanity publishing is simple. Self-published authors with small presses have a long tradition in literature and are involved in every step of the production of their book. They learn the business end of the publishing industry. They take care that their books are scrupulously edited. Virginia Woolf’s husband set up Hogarth Press  so he could publish his wife’s brilliant but misunderstood novels. Walt Whitman, a poet far ahead of his time, self-published too.

I feel fine about being in such company. I found a printer known for quality work and met with them to discuss everything from the size of my book to the color of the pages (buff is better than white) to the type of print I wanted. Then I hired a skilled professional to format the book to the printers’ specifications. This is not how the Vanity Press folks do it.

Vanity Press companies take out ads in writer’s magazines and promise to do everything for you. Just send your manuscript and they’ll do the rest. What happens here is the writer loses creative control, and at a price far above $3000. More like $10,000 or more. Writers who don’t understand the slim but important distinction between vanity and self-publishing are writers who do not do their homework. Neither vanity writer or vanity press has any interest in editing. To their own detriment, vanity writers don’t want to know about or deal with editing or any of the many other aspects of the publishing end of things.

Now Kindle Digital Platform and other internet sources are making it easy for self-published and vanity authors to upload their books with free distribution at little to no cost. And thus the indie writer was born. Indie books run the gamut from unedited unformatted vanity projects to professional quality books. These indie authors aren’t just for e-readers. They have the option to print their work on demand. (POD). I decided to use KDP for Sister Issues, my first published novel, that fits no mainstream niche (one sister is chick lit the other is women’s fiction). Also because I was familiar with it from my first book.

With Sister Issues, I didn’t bother with the print version; I just wanted to join the band of indies. I still ended up paying someone to format my book, but this time it was for $100, a price well worth the work–because the internal workings of KDP demand certain formatting details if the writer wants an e-book not riddled with mistakes and strange re-arrangements. I found that out the hard way, too, but it’s so easy to “publish” and “unpublish” on KDP that it didn’t cost me respect or readers.

Right now, indie books vary wildly in appearance and content. Some authors, like Terri Giuliano Long, are trying to change what we have: vanity and self-published indie writers along with  traditionally published authors reprinting their back catalogs all duking it out for a spot on the list. It isn’t easy promoting an indie novel, and so far the mainstream press has been wary. As Terri Long notes, this is also changing.

Still there are so many books out there. The serious novelist who doesn’t fit any major publishing parameters finds her work buried under vanity crap and well-known traditionally pubbed authors. This is where we are now and this is what we, the indie authors who care about production and content excellence, are trying to fix.

Something funny happened to me when I indie pubbed. I received a contract for another novel from an e-publisher. These folks have been around for years and their quality of content varies. Anybody can put up an e-pub house on the net. And frankly, most of what sells is very spicy sex to soft core porn like 50 Shades of Gray. Although I love building sexual tension, I’m not fond of what my editor politely termed “consummation” scenes. Still, as an adventure, I decided to try working with an e-publisher as well. They take care of all the things I didn’t like doing on KDP, like providing a book cover, formatting, editing, distribution, and marketing.

The Wild Rose Press is set to release my new novel, The Paris Notebook, July 18, 2012 in both electronic and print versions. It will be interesting to see which novel does better, the indie self-published or the e-published by an online publisher. Right now, it’s anybody’s game.