Author Archives: Lin White

How much does self-publishing cost?

This question receives many different answers, from thousands of pounds to nothing. So what’s really going on?

 

First of all, actually publishing your book costs nothing. Uploading files to Amazon and creating either ebook or print version does not involve a fee.

 

But it’s not as simple as that. There needs to be quality control of what you’re uploading. Has your work been reviewed, to ensure that it makes sense, that it’s well written, that it doesn’t contain silly typos or other errors that will put your reader off? Will your cover design attract readers to your book? Is your layout correctly formatted for whatever platform you want to publish on?

 

If you’re self-publishing, then all those quality control issues come down to you. It’s your responsibility to get an editor to go through your work, to get a good cover design done, to ensure the formatting is correct.

 

Some of these you can do yourself, if you have the skills, but editing is one of those jobs that must be done by someone else to be done well; you are too close to your own work, and just can’t see what you’ve actually written as opposed to what you think you’ve written.

 

Even cover design and formatting are worth paying experts for; while anyone can throw a cover together, books are a competitive market, and your book deserves a cover that will attract the reader. Likewise, formatting can be fiddly and frustrating if you’re new to it. Why not spend your time writing, and pay the experts to do their job?

 

There are publishing companies around who offer to do all this as a package deal, for a price. Be very wary of these; generally, they make their money from the services they sell to you, not from their share of the books sold (although they take a good slice of that too). You risk paying a lot of money for services you could have got cheaper separately, and losing control of your book as well.

 

What if you can’t afford to pay an editor, cover designer etc?

 

The answer then is not to just put it out anyway. The quality is likely to be poor, and that will put readers off anything else you write, and weaken the reputation of self-published books generally.

 

Traditional publishing involves a publisher liking your book enough to invest money in it. They keep part of the sales, yes, and you might lose some of the control over your book, but they are the ones who take the financial risk. Remember, if they ask you for money to publish, they are not a traditional publishing company.

 

So in the end it comes down to this: please either be prepared to invest money as well as time in your writing to ensure quality (after all, you’re expecting others to invest money in your books!), or find someone else who is willing to do so.

 

Openings

Within the first page, you need to catch the reader’s attention.

  • What does your character want or need? What’s in the way?
  • What are they like as a person? Does a real sense of personality come across?
  • Is everything happening in a vacuum, or is it solidly grounded in time and space?
  • Is there a sense of direction in your story?
  • Is there a sense of unease, of something wrong?
  • How does the writing flow? Silly errors will put the reader off.

 

 

I’ve finished my novel

I’ve finished my novel! I have a complete, readable story. So now I knock together a cover, upload the cover and Word file to Amazon and hit publish, right?

 

Wrong.

 

Now the real work begins.

 

It’s really important to understand that there’s a continuum in writing. There isn’t any bad/good writing divide. There’s a whole range of qualities between barely readable and compelling writing. Just because you’ve completed a draft, and maybe a friend has enjoyed it, doesn’t mean it’s ready to publish. It means you have something you can work on and develop.

 

In this age where we can literally type “The End” on a draft and then have it for sale within minutes, some people are tempted to do just that. The result is often a barely readable mess, with spelling, punctuation and grammar issues, random tense changes and very odd, distracting formatting and a cover that screams Self Published!

 

If you just want people to read your work, then there are platforms where you can upload it and have a ready-made audience. In fanfiction particularly, writers can upload stories and be inundated with praise. That’s often not because of the writing, but because of the ideas they express about the characters people have already bonded with.

 

If you want people to pay for your work and feel so happy they’ve done so that they’ll tell others, then you need to put in a lot more investment – in terms of time, effort and usually cold, hard cash.

 

I can’t afford it, you might say. That’s where the traditional publishing market comes in. Find yourself a publisher, often via an agent, and they will invest in the writing for you, as long as they feel it’s good enough. Of course, they’ll take their share of the profit for doing so.

 

Failing that, you need to be prepared to put in the effort yourself. This means revising until you can’t see any way to improve it, asking beta readers to help, working on it some more, and then when you’ve taken it as far as you can, you enlist the professionals – the editors, the formatters, the proofreaders, the cover designers.

 

After all, the traditionally published writers expect to be put through such quality control, and they will be your rivals for sales. And you have not only your own reputation as a writer to protect, but the reputation of indie authors as a whole.

 

So now I have a full draft of my novel, I’ll be going back through to beef it up, and then seeking help, and I’ll be saving up for an editor, because even though I’ve studied writing and editing intensively, I know that I’m too close to it to edit my own work. And I’ll be making sure that what I do eventually publish will be the best I can make it, because I want my readers to want more, not to feel they’ve wasted their time and money on an inferior product.

 

 

 

 

Sending your manuscript to a beta reader

When sending your manuscript to a publisher or agent, it’s vital that you follow their instructions exactly. Whatever font they recommend, whatever layout they recommend – if you don’t follow their guidelines, then at best you’ll irritate them and at worst your manuscript will be deleted unread.

 

However, when sending out to a beta reader, it’s nowhere near as straightforward. In one sense, it doesn’t matter at all, but I’ve looked at a lot of manuscripts in the past month as I offered free readings of the first 5k words, as an experiment, and I started to notice a few issues.

 

  • Your font should be easy to read and in a reasonable size. I see no reason to use anything more fancy than 12pt Times New Roman. Some are submitted in Courier New, but that tends to give the manuscript a “typewritten” feel, and can be hard on the eye.
  • I recommend including a cover page, containing the title, author and basic contact details. This is useful in case the original email disappears, and as a reminder of the information – it’s very frustrating to not have the book’s title displayed anywhere!
  • It would also be useful to include basic information at the start of your book, such as the blurb and a little about your writing background and your intentions for the book. Be wary of including a full synopsis here though – a reader will generally not want spoilers before reading.
  • Save the file with a clear filename – preferably your book title, with or without extra information. A file entitled “ABBC” really isn’t useful! You might be familiar with it as a nickname for your book, but your reader isn’t.
  • Make good use of the header/footer facility. A page number on the page itself will ensure that you and the reader are both considering the same text on the same page. Having the author/title repeated at the top of the page can be useful.
  • Label your chapter changes clearly. A reader will often read in chapters, and it’s irritating to discover that there are no chapters, or only vague line spaces for breaks. Yes, some writers do write without chapters, but it’s not recommended unless you’re really sure what you’re doing. It’s easier to consider issues such as plot when you can break it down chapter by chapter.
  • Start each chapter on a new page. Page count is not an issue with electronic versions, and the visual white space helps to make the jump from chapter to chapter. It will also help you think clearly about your chapter breaks.
  • Make sure that at the very least you have run spell-check before submitting to a reader. While they do not expect a clean, proofread version, it’s incredibly irritating to discover error after error that could have been easily discovered and fixed with a quick read-through.

 

 

 

How can I tell the writer…

If you’re a beta reader, one issue that you will come across sooner or later is a project that you just can’t get on with. So how do you break the news to the writer?

 

First, you need to decide whether the problem is yours or theirs. Could it be that you just don’t like the theme of the writing, or that something about it is hitting a sensitive spot? If so, then you could mention that and then either decline and return the project, or be as objective as you can despite your misgivings. It’s possible to write about the way a story is presented while at the same time cringing internally at the storyline.

 

If the problem is that you feel the writing is weak, or the storyline is too implausible, or something else related to the writing itself, then it’s important that you think carefully about the issues you find. Feedback in this case is even more important than if you enjoy every aspect of the story, but it needs to be specific. “I hated this story” is unhelpful. “I found this story totally implausible” helps a little. “I found it very unlikely that he would want to kiss her two minutes after finding her standing over his beloved mother’s body with a gun in her hand” is something that can be dealt with much more effectively. If you really have to return a piece of work unread, or only partly read, explain as sensitively as you can why you had such a problem with it. This might be as simple as “I’m sorry, but the number of spelling and grammar errors in this text make it very hard to read, as I’m having to constantly stop and work out what you’re trying to say. I suggest that you at least run spell check before submitting a piece of work to a reader.”

 

It’s natural to worry when you feel you have lots of negative feedback for a writer. Try to praise the aspects of the writing that you find do work – even if you have to look really hard. They’ve put a lot of work into the writing, and it’s disheartening to be given just a list of errors. Remember the phrase “even better if…”. Try to raise questions rather than making criticisms. “Did you mean…”, “I’m not quite sure what you mean when…”, “Have you considered…” Explain the effect their writing has: “The way you jump from one person’s thoughts to the next means there’s no chance for tension to build up, because I know what they’re both feeling all the time. Have you thought about sticking to her point of view for the scene, so that we only know his reaction and not the reason for it?”

 

Remember that you’re not their cheerleader. Too much focus on the positive and too little on the negative could give them a mistaken idea of their own capabilities and will not help them develop their writing. Any writer who publishes work will be in for criticism via reviews, and some of it will probably be harsh. You can help to prepare their work by raising the issues that you see. After all, they’ve asked for feedback on their work, and that means they should be expecting to receive information to help them.

 

Adapt your feedback to the writer’s background and experience. If you’re reading for someone who’s already published several pieces of work, then they should be used to receiving feedback, and should readily understand terms such as foreshadowing, POV, third person. If they’re showing their writing to someone for the first time, then you need to recognise that and encourage them forward. This might involve explaining the terms you use, recommending they find a writing group, or pointing them towards resources, but shouldn’t be praising them to the point where they feel they’re ready to hit the publish button right now.

 

Above all, don’t worry too much: some writers do find it very difficult to take any sort of criticism. That doesn’t mean that you should become upset over their response. As long as you’ve been careful and sensitive over your feedback, then their reaction is not your problem. Just mark it down to experience, consider briefly if you could have handled it any differently, and move on. There are plenty of writers out there who would value your feedback.

 

Nanowrimo survival guide

Four days to go until people all round the world hit the keyboard or notebook for (inter)NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words during the month of November. But what’s the best way to achieve that?

  1. Aim to write every day. The target is an average of 1667 words per day, but it’s better to aim higher than that in the beginning if possible, as it can be very hard to catch up if you fall behind right at the start. Your enthusiasm may wane later in the month anyway, so bank extra words whenever you can.
  2. Use all your available time – not just that time when you can sit and physically put words down, but the time when you’re cleaning your teeth, or waiting for a bus, or sitting in traffic. Time spent planning means that when you reach the page you’re ready to start the words flowing. The best part of nano is getting totally involved with your story.
  3. Even if you are so hard-pressed for time that you can’t fit in your normal writing session, at least aim to open the file and look at it. That’s easier than ever this year, with Scrivener available on iOS. Letting the story drift from your thoughts, even for one day, can be hard to recover from.
  4. Don’t worry about the quality of what you write. You’re working out the story. There’s plenty of time to polish later. Sometimes you need to push through to figure out what your story is about.
  5. Don’t be afraid to change things as you go along – but don’t go back to fix earlier things. Just make a note to yourself for later and plough onwards. If you must rewrite a section, then leave the original there too for now – they still count as words written during November.
  6. Remember that everyone goes through a stage of hating and doubting their writing. Acknowledge that you’ve reached that stage and work through it. You only have 30 days maximum on the one project. After that, you can re-evaluate and do something else instead, but this project deserves its 30-day 50k-words of attention.
  7. Other ideas will rear their heads once you open yourself up to creativity. Thank them, note them down and promise them attention in December.
  8. If you have the chance, local write-ins can be great for motivation and companionship. There’s nothing quite like sitting at a table with other writers and just hammering out the words.
  9. Accept that whatever work you do will probably need to be redone or at least edited thoroughly, but remember that you’ll be that much better as a writer for the regular practice.
  10. Most of all, when you hit 1st December, don’t stop writing!

Opinions vary on the usefulness of nanowrimo as a writing tool. My opinion is that as long as you don’t expect to write in November, publish in December and then do nothing until the following October, then nano can be a fantastic tool.

 

Powerful dialogue – add subtext

There are many aspects of dialogue to manage, and different ways of tackling it. The aspect that interests me most is the subtext: not just what the characters are saying but what they mean.

 

Think of any family rows you might have. What are they really about? What on the surface is about what’s on TV might be about control. Argument about who you’re going to for Christmas dinner is really about relationships between in-laws. Someone reassuring a member of the family might be seeking to reassure themselves just as much – or even more.

 

When your characters are talking, think about what they’re actually saying, and then think about what they are revealing about themselves as a character. If the conversation isn’t working on both levels, then reconsider if it’s really pulling its weight.

 

Listen to conversations about you, or on TV programmes, and hear the subtext in them if you can. Here’s one quick example I overheard in the summer, by a stall that sold signs for gardens.

“Oh look, ‘Grandma’s herb garden’. Your mother would like that.”

“Yeah.” Pause. “But she’s not a Grandma.”

“No, but she’d like to be.”

Now didn’t that just tell you so much about the dynamics of that particular family?

 

My beta reader has gone silent!

One issue that crops up a lot with beta reading is the silence that can ensue once a manuscript has been sent out. When you’re sitting waiting for that message that tells you what they think, and nothing happens, what is the problem and what can be done?

 

There can be many reasons why you don’t hear back from them, and it’s not always because they hate your writing: it might be that their personal life has just hit problems, and they just don’t have time or energy to deal with your book. It might be that they’ve been inundated with books to beta read and they don’t have the time for them all. Or maybe they’ve realised that whatever the quality of your writing, the story itself just isn’t for them. They should be letting you know, if any of that is the case, but sometimes people panic, feel guilty, or just don’t find the time and motivation to let you know.

 

Or maybe they are one of those who are just seeking free books to read, and can’t be bothered to reply. It’s true, that can happen.

 

So what can be done to avoid or mitigate these problems?

 

First of all, try to agree with your reader a timescale. When do they expect to have finished? Some readers offer turnaround within a day, while others prefer closer to a month. Time itself isn’t the issue; what is important is to agree. If you need a fast turnaround, find a reader who offers that. If you are more relaxed (after all, how long did it take you to write the novel?), then that will give you more scope.

 

Some readers are happy to give progress reports, while others prefer to read the whole thing before giving any kind of feedback. It’s unfair to your reader to expect constant feedback, unless that’s what you’ve agreed in advance. It’s also unfair to constantly nag them about how they’re doing. They have better things to do than to reply to regular messages asking them how they’re getting on.

 

However, it’s perfectly acceptable to send a message if it’s after the deadline and you’ve heard nothing. This should be a polite “I wondered how you were getting on” message, not an “I assume as I haven’t heard that you hate my book” sort of message! If you still don’t hear anything after a couple of nudges (leaving reasonable time to respond, of course), then put it down to experience and move on.

 

Remember also that messages can and do go missing, on both sides. I’ve sent off reports and heard nothing back, and then had a query a week or so later, asking how I’m getting on. Eventually the message was tracked down: it had just been overlooked. I’ve also had clients send chase-up messages, only to find that their original message had ended up in my spam folder and so the file was never received. It’s for this reason that I will always acknowledge safe receipt of a file within 24 hours.

 

Finding a reliable team of beta readers can be tough, and this is why there’s a growing market for paid beta reads: if a reader is receiving payment for their report, that gives them incentive to read and give thorough feedback. However, be cautious with paid beta reads, and make sure your reader has a good reputation.

 

Finally, if you find a good beta reader, or even better, a few beta readers, treat them carefully and look after them – they are a valuable resource! Always respond to their reports, even if it’s just “Thank you for your time and your feedback. Is it okay to contact you again if I have any questions once I’ve read the report properly?” You don’t have to give them a blow-by-blow account of what you think of each comment, but acknowledgement is vital. And respond quickly, even if your time is tight and you don’t have time to consider the feedback immediately. Just as you’ve been impatiently waiting to know what they think of your work, so they are waiting to know their report has been received safely and appreciated.

 

 

Reading as a writer

Stephen King, along with many other writers, is firm in saying that if you want to write, you also have to read a lot. So what can you learn as a writer who reads?

 

There are many books around that teach you who to write better, but one of the best ways to learn is to see the advice in action. You want to master Point of View? Study books to see how they handle it. I have a list of books that I turn to when I want to see how to handle First Person, for example, to see how they deal with transitions between the present tense and the past, or to see how they make dialogue sound like fiction and not memoir, or avoid telling instead of showing. You want to see how books handle description? You want to see how they handle pace? How long a chapter usually is in that genre? How long the book is? Find a book and read it as a writer.

 

There are different levels of reading. Firstly, you learn to read for information and entertainment. Then you start to notice the little tricks that the writer uses to create an effect, or to make a point. Then you reach the point where you can start to use those tricks yourself. How can you expect to use those tricks if you’ve never seen them in use?

 

It’s also useful to make a note of books that use specific techniques – for example, The Martian is a great book to study. It makes use of first person via logs. It makes use of third person when it needs to. And, of course, it was a self-published book that then attracted a contract and a huge movie.

 

Beta reading can work too; sometimes it’s even more informative to see a less polished piece of work, and try to figure out what the issue is. But don’t assume that beta reading is enough. The wider you read, the better, and enjoy what you read. Just keep at least half an eye on the tricks the author uses, and think about whether you can adapt them for your own use.

 

How do I write…?

The question I see asked most often in writing groups is a variation on “How do I write this?”, “How do I start my story?”, “Will writing it this way work?”, “What’s the best Point of View to use?”

 

It’s as though writers have a limited stock of words and have to get them right first time.

 

If you’re stuck on how to start your story, or a specific scene, then write your way into it. Start with “It was a dark and stormy night”, or “Once upon a time”, or “When he got home”. Then write the rest of the scene. Once it’s all down, go back to that opening that caused so much trouble. Chances are, you’ll find your opening, and just have to delete the waffle in front of it.

 

If you’re not sure how to tackle a particular scene, maybe because you’re uncertain whose POV to use, or what tense to use, or whether to write in 1st person or 3rd, then write it one way and then the other. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of the scene, and a better idea of which works better.

 

And above all, when you reach that point in your story where you feel everything is rubbish and not worth continuing, remember: that’s the point where you prove yourself a true writer. That’s the point when you plough on anyway, remind yourself why you wanted to write that idea in the first place, and just see where you end up.