Don’t Let Anyone Think You Published Your First-Draft

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I was zooming along with my first round of hardcopy edits on The Light Never Lies, feeling OK – when wham – the boom was lowered. I ran up against a couple of chapters that were so poorly written, they are headed right back to the drawing board. I found inappropriate conversation, passive voice, description details that dragged the story down like a loaf of bread that fell flat.

How did this hackneyed piece of prose get woven into my book? Here’s the thing I’ve discovered. A writer has to expect to see crap in the first draft of any piece of work.

The first draft is entirely in the service of getting the story down. Sometimes that’s done with finesse and sometimes not. That’s why we rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite.

I’m a self-published author. I have joined a growing rank of people who have decided they will not query agents, wait around endlessly for rejections, and then start the whole process again. We won’t allow gatekeeper traditional publishers to say that our work is not sellable.

With this stance, comes considerable responsibility to the craft of writing. If the traditional publisher is not going to narrow the eye of the needle through which we must pass our work, then who will? We have taken on this burden ourselves, and as we all know, policing ourselves is not an easy task.

I have made a commitment to go out of my way to support the work of other self-published authors. I upload your books to my Kindle, and I read them (and not only when those books are offered for free.)

If, in good conscience, I can give your book a 4 or 5 star rating on Amazon, then I sit down when I’ve finished the book, and I write a review. I’m new to this whole thing, so I don’t have five hundred reviews out there, but I’ve read a lot of your work and I’ve done reviews. (A caveat here – I’ve read a few wonderful novels that have tons of reviews already. In the interest of my own use of time, I’ve skimped there on writing one myself. I’m rethinking that position. Every review is helpful.)

There’s no easy way to say this – some of what I’ve read has not been good.

When I do a review I don’t focus on comparing your book with every other book I’ve ever read. I read each book on its own merits. Did I feel drawn into the story, did I like the characters, did you make me care enough to want to keep on reading?

Here’s a news flash. Readers don’t want to be insulted. If I’ve taken the time to read your book, then I’d like it to make sense. I don’t want to run into plot holes I could drive a semi through, or characters that change personality in mid-stream, or dialogue that sounds patently ridiculous given the situation the characters find themselves in, or the crap you’ve decided to throw into the story for no reason that I can see, or one of my all-time pet peeve – storylines that dried up instead of getting tied up before the last page. I don’t want to read through your entire book only to discover that you got lazy at the end.

It matters not to me if the genre of your book is my thing. If a book is clearly in a certain genre (romance, or crime, or mystery, or fantasy, or paranormal urban trash vampire – I made that last one up), then it isn’t OK for me to evaluate that book harshly for remaining true to what it is. I plan to respect that. But I still hold your book accountable to the points I made earlier.

Naturally, poor formatting, lack of editing for the basics of correct grammar and sentence structure, is a turn off – but I’ll put up with that if the story is compelling. I’ll probably mention that there were some issues, but if the story got to me, I’m forgiving of those points.

I will spend months of my life rewriting and editing The Light Never Lies. When this book is self-published, and you spend $3.99 to buy it and invest your time reading it – I want you to know that I have done everything in my power to ensure that you are not insulted or disappointed. The genre of story I have chosen to tell might not be your thing, or you might not approve of the paths some of the characters have taken, but there will be internal consistency to my book.

My point here is that self-published authors owe readers more than some of us are giving. Don’t blow it. Don’t self-publish your book without being sure it is the best story that you can tell. And if it’s up on Amazon and some readers are writing 1 star reviews, pay attention to what they’re saying. Don’t compare the dozen 5 star reviews you somehow managed to have people who owed you something write, to the less than stellar takes on your work from objective readers. When I get to the end of your book, don’t let me think that you published your first draft.

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36 comments on “Don’t Let Anyone Think You Published Your First-Draft

  1. Bad, sweat and tears is required whether you self-published or go the traditional route. Putting my best work out there is a number one priority, after all my name is going to be on the cover. Great post, Francis!

  2. Debbie Young says:

    Well said, Francis! And that’s why it makes me very anxious when indie writers publish their book bit by bit, on their website, as they write it. Nooooo!

  3. oldmainer says:

    I appreciate your advice. I am several chapters into a novel and have no idea if it is any good or not, and I have to admit, my grammatical and punctuation skills are marginal. I tend to write the way I talk. If I ever finish the damn thing, don’t know what to do with it. Probably put it in a drawer and cross it off my list of things to do before I die.:)

  4. abigler42 says:

    Paranormal urban trash vampire is my favorite genre! This is a great piece, it makes me feel nervous for the author when I read something that has been rushed to Amazon. It takes away from the book and the professionalism of the author. If you are going to put all the work into writing a book then take the extra time to make sure it flows and is edited before going to the public! As a reader and a writer working on my first book I can appreciate this post!

  5. I’m actually thinking of writing a paranormal urban trash vampire book. Want to be my co-writer?

  6. Jane Fritz says:

    Another great post, Fran. So much heart, so much good advice. Thank you.

  7. codecalla says:

    In my writing, I often rewrite the first part ten or twelve times before I finally finish the story. Throughout writing, I’m revising as I write, hoping for the best outcome. Without the support of objective editors or readers, it can be difficult to spot the problem areas. I think it is so important to have good readers look over the works. Since I first self-published in Dec. I found myself tweaking annoying format problems until this morning I once again released a new edition. But what’s more important than perfection or presentation is the heart behind the story. I’ve not had any reviews on my work yet, other than first hand accounts from friends and family members. I often think I’m my own worst critic (occupational hazard as college teacher), but I’ve learned so much with this first novel. I now know how much more preparation and final checks I will complete before releasing the next one! Experience is so valuable, and thoughtful reviews are definitely needed by anyone who is perfecting their craft.

    • You have captured my sentiments exactly when you say what is most important is the heart behind the story – the story is everything. It sounds as you go out of your way to ensure that story is the very best you can make it. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. We do learn so much about this business of writing as we go along.

      • codecalla says:

        Absolutely. The ultimate point for me is the reader’s enjoyment, which sometimes I can find out about, but not always. It’s easy to second-guess where to start the story or how to change specific scenes and fall prey to the perfection paragon ailment. I think the more you read, the easier focusing your story becomes as well. Continuing to give our best because we love what we do…that is a privilege that shouldn’t be taken lightly.

  8. Gemma Hawdon says:

    Great advice, Francis. Honest and straight to the point. On the flip side, I have read some shocking books published traditionally, including the grammar! I’ve just sent mine off for a critique – so I’ll let you know in about 6 weeks how bad/good it went. Terrifying!

    • Good point, Gemma. Some traditionally published books suffer from the same kinds of things I mentioned. Good luck with the critique – I share your evaluation – terrifying to wait 6 weeks for such important feedback.

  9. Mindy says:

    I was just talking with a friend today who just had the first of three books published by a traditional house. She is writing another book outside this genre and is planning on indie publishing. We were talking about this very issue, poorly written books that are published too soon. Many people DON’T do what you do, they publish a book when it’s only in the stage where it should go to a critique group. I love how driven you are to set the bar high for those taking this new route, and sharing your wisdom along the way.

    • Thanks, Mindy. The post came out of my need to vent a bit. Lots of people out there are writing on this topic and I think that’s good. Self-published authors really need to think about the quality of their book. What I’m arguing for here is self-monitoring. The last thing I would advocate is yet another gatekeeper system. In the end the reader will decide.

  10. Roy McCarthy says:

    I’m no role model and I tweak rather than re-write. I’d much rather present my product free of basic errors and I spend more money than I’d like on having my stuff copy edited and proofed. I do some reviewing for a book review website and a lot of the work offered up is way sub-standard in this regard.

    • You had the story down, Roy (Tess of Portelet Manor) so, you are wise to spend your resources on the editing. Lately I’ve read two books that were well edited (I found no typos or obviously crazy sentence structure that interfere with reading) and yet the story and dialogue made me want to cry and not cry in a good way. I’m with you on not being an expert writer – but I’ve been reading fiction for a long, long time.

  11. S. J. Qualls says:

    I believe there are many books out there that don’t get a chance because they aren’t perfect. Spelling errors are inexcusable in my way of thinking, but not everyone writes the same way. I write the way I talk. Not everyone has the $$$ to hire an editor for a book that is a shade out of the norm. I read many books or try to – some of them are just plain boring and some of them require a dictionary constantly. These books get shoved aside. Not everyone has a college degree. If a book grabs my attention, by content, I really don’t care if the writing is “perfect” or not. I read for enjoyment, not to pick it apart.

    • I totally agree with what you are saying about reading for enjoyment. When I used to be part of a bookclub, I was stunned at the number of complaints people had about the books we read. I often went away thinking, wow, I’m obviously not that discerning of a reader since I enjoyed the book. I agree also that a book doesn’t have to be perfect to be enjoyable. But it has to be a good story, because what else is there to grab our attention? True – we all have different tastes and different ideas about what constitutes a good story. Maybe some of my reaction behind this post is a sense of saddness for what a book could have been with a bit more work. Thanks so much for taking the time to weigh in on this subject. Each comment opens the dialogue a bit more.

  12. Gwen says:

    Wow, Fran – I have so many thoughts about this. I agree with all your points above. There are many self-pubbed authors who give the rest of the lot (and self-publishing itself) a bad name. I once took a novel-writing course with a woman who self-published her novel long before I thought it was ready. I supported her anyway, downloaded the novel on my e-reader, but I couldn’t finish it. The writing wasn’t strong enough and interfered with my enjoyment of the story (too many problems to list here). It’s unfortunate because she had a compelling concept. But she only put the manuscript through one round of revisions and didn’t listen to a lot of the suggestions classmates gave her in the forum.

    I think she wrote the best book she could, given the skills she had at the time. But she didn’t give it enough time, and she didn’t seem interested in investing in her skills to become a better writer. She was in a hurry to publish, and I think that’s often the bigger problem. People know self-publishing is a viable option, so they’re in a hurry to get it out there. They’re looking at the end result with blinders: publish, publish, publish, not realizing that rushing into it is hurting themselves, as well as other indie authors. These writers are convinced their stories are good and can’t look at their own writing with any objectivity.

    The good news is, we have authors like you who give self-publishing a good name. You can look at your manuscript, recognize part of it is crap, and go back to the drawing board. But that’s the writing life, isn’t it?

    Fantastic post! Thanks for speaking your mind!

    • Thanks, Gwen. I am thrilled that this post has generated the kind of engagement it has, because I believe we need to talk openly about this subject. But it isn’t easy. As I go back and read my own words, I feel judgemental and think – I’m no expert, so where do I get off dumping on anyone else. I’m not an expert writer by far – this craft takes a lifetime to perfect. (and I doubt one life time is enough) I do feel much more of an expert reader since I’ve been doing that all of my life. The books that make me the saddest are the ones that have potential – there is a gem of a story there and with work and work and work – it could soar. Thanks for taking time to enter this dialogue.

      • Gwen says:

        I love contributing my 2 cents’ worth whenever I see opportunity. None of us are experts, and I don’t think one’s craft is ever truly perfected. We can only draw on experience and practice. But the more we practice, the more expert we become. Thanks again for such a thought- and dialogue-provoking post.

  13. Francis, thank you for this. You’ve said succinctly and with passion what, as an editor, it’s really difficult for me to say without alienating clients! What you’ve written about in this post is all too common, at least in the self-publishing field that I work in. So many writers are surprisingly resistant to even basic line editing, and I’m so curious as to what that’s about. I’ve often used the analogy that being able to nail two boards together doesn’t make you a carpenter. Writers need to take a serious and craftspersonly (yes, I just made that word up) approach to their work. Many (like you) do, but so many do not. I know that self-publishing in particular is an expensive venture, and it amazes me to see how many people will pour energy and heart and time and money into their project, only to refuse to finish polishing it up before sending it out into the world.

    I recently had the experience of copy editing a manuscript whose premise I thought was really original and interesting but whose actual writing was abysmal. There were sentences, even entire paragraphs, that were incomprehensible. I tried to explain my concerns about the book, and was told that the author “didn’t care that the book didn’t make sense” and just wanted the editing “finished,” and I was instructed to correct spelling and grammar only. Editors are book lovers, and so it pained me to send the work back in a state of technical correctness but also just plain unreadable. Like you, it makes me sad that a great idea can get stifled by a writer’s ego, or maybe it was just that they’d finished working on it and wanted to be done with it already. Either way, I am almost certain no reader will ever get through the whole thing, and what a waste of time and energy that seems to be!

    I also had the experience of having a writer I was working with completely ‘quit’ the self-publishing process after getting a copy edit done that only suggested minor technical changes (a few spelling mistakes here, a few grammatical errors there). I thought the book was wonderful and said so repeatedly, but the author thought I had been “unfair” in my editing because I’d made “so many” corrections (none structural, mind, just technical). I always use the Track Changes function so that writers can go through and see what I’ve suggested, and take or leave the suggestions I make. I completely support a writer’s right to stick to his vision and try to support that however I can, but taking spelling errors personally is another level of sensitivity altogether. I was really sorry to see that book ‘die.’

    As a sidenote, I gave Disappearing in Plain Sight to my mom for Mother’s Day this year when I went out to the island to visit her. She’s really enjoying it!

    • Thank you for this lengthy response from an editor’s side of the equation. I had a theory that maybe the problem was how easy (and inexpensive if you do it yourself) it is to put a book up on Amazon, but from what you are sharing, it seems even writers who are willing to pay for editing, don’t want to take the advice they are given on how to improve their work. That is sad – the cost and the time involved for everyone. Of course editors love books – why else would they be involved in such work! Maybe all this comes about because writing is such a personal and subjective experience. Getting the distance required for one’s own work to see it objectively is probably the work of a lifetime. I’m so glad you liked Disappearing in Plain Sight so much you would give it as a gift. That means a lot.

      • I agree, I think people’s sensitivity about their own work is absolutely wrapped up in their love for it and in how personal the work is, how connected it is to their very selves. I know that it is much easier for me to edit than to have my own work edited (perhaps this is why I am an editor and not a writer), so I can certainly empathize!

  14. […] Don’t Let Anyone Think You Published Your First-Draft […]

  15. Reblogged this on Lunatic or Genius? and commented:
    This is one of the biggest problems in the self-publishing industry, and Francis hits the nail so square on the head you might as well call her Mighty Thor!

  16. Good advice. Can we call you Mighty THor now?

    • I’m starting to think I might just like that name. Mighty Thor sounds like a kick butt kind of person. More apt to be good at promotion, perhaps. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

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