In place of this month's Sunday Showcase, something a little different. And no, it's not just an excuse to reference that Journey song.*
They say that if you believe in yourself enough, you will eventually succeed. They are, of course, lying. You only have to watch an X Factor audition to know that self-belief is not the only prerequisite for success. And even among those who do have some talent, not all will make it. Which leaves those of us possessing any modicum of self-awareness with a dilemma. To succeed, not only do we have to believe in ourselves, and believe that we're worth believing in; we also have to believe that we deserve success more than others who are equally worthy.
If you've been keeping up with the blog over the past few weeks then you may have noticed that I'm trying to give the ol' place a bit more structure (read: be more organised with my topics so I have at least some chance of posting regularly). The first Sunday of the month is when I reflect on personal matters; the second is for book recommendations; the third is for showcasing some of my own work; and the fourth – which is where we are now – is for musings on the art of writing. And not only that, but the related art of editing.
Those of you who are somewhat acquainted with me will know that when I'm not battling with Baby Smith or attempting to blog on a regular basis, I work full time as an editor. I haven't discussed this a great deal previously, but it strikes me that although I work in non-fiction, some of my experience might be of use to authors of all kinds. Which is why I'm now going to talk to you about proofreading – and more specifically, why today's writer needs it more than ever.
A proofreader is paid less than a copyeditor, and this is due to the level of artistic skill required. A good copyeditor should be thoroughly involved with the text. She should be able to suggest improvements to infelicitous sentences, eliminate word echoes, and highlight points at which the narrative fails to flow smoothly. She should notice when character X has brown eyes on one page and blue on another. While wider structural edits – plot, pace, character development – don't fall within her remit, she is very much in charge of the details. Consistency is the copyeditor's superpower.
A proofreader's job, on the other hand, is far more technical. The proofreader doesn't care about style (though proofreaders are often also copyeditors and, if you're lucky, may point out an awkward sentence or two the copyeditor missed). Instead, a good proofreader will flag up any misspellings, missing apostrophes and other punctuation/grammar issues; in short, anything that's an error rather than a stylistic choice. He will also – and this is the key point I'm getting to here – mark up problems with the layout and presentation of the text.
The role of the proofreader harks back to the days of typesetting, when the physical process of laying out the text for printing could introduce all kinds of errors, even after the book's content was signed off and completed. Nowadays, of course, everything is done on computer and (depending on the layout package being used) what you see is pretty much what you get. If your proofreader spots a mistake in your final laid-out-for-print manuscript, chances are it was there all along … except when it comes to ebooks.
In some ways, ebooks have taken us back to the error-prone days of manual print layout. Some ebooks have been scanned from printed texts, which is by no means a foolproof process and can result in a range of nonsensical word substitutions. Others contain characters that aren't recognised by one conversion program or another (ever seen a bunch of digits where there should be a dash or an accented character?). Even ebooks of new titles – which presumably haven't had to go through the trauma of being converted from an older format – often fall down when it comes to anything unusual, whether in content or in layout.
So here, finally, is my point. The proofreader's job is to view your text as your readers are going to view it – and with the rise of digital books, that means quite a few different ways. There's no point proofreading your print copy and leaving your ebooks to fend for themselves, because errors could have been introduced in the conversion process. Certainly the layout will be different in each format and needs checking. Yet despite the self-evidence of this statement, I can't count the number of ebooks I've read – produced by large, well-known publishers – in which the layout has been poor. Spacing and indentation of paragraphs, breaks before chapters, presentation of lists or columns: all these things can go wrong. You can't assume that anything other than simple block text (and sometimes not even that) can be poured into a new format without the need for tweaking.
So, indie authors, I beg you: proofread your ebooks. Get someone to read them in each of the final formats you want to make available. That way, you'll impress all of your audience, not just the part of it that likes print. Not only that, but you'll be ahead of many of your fellow authors – and quite a few established publishers as well.
Selling yourself. It sounds bad, doesn't it? It has connotations of selling out, of being all about the money. Of prostituting your art for the sake of a quick buck. But in this digital age, the ability to sell ourselves is one of the key attributes we as authors require.
It is, of course, nothing to do with money – at least, not directly. We aren't simply selling books in exchange for cash, though we hope that will be a consequence of what we do. Rather, we're selling an image. A sexy, knowledgeable and/or witty version of ourselves that the world wants to spend time with. Because when they're interested in us, they'll be interested in our work – and that's how idle browsers become readers and readers become fans.
At least, that's the theory.
I've been dabbling in this process for a while now – dabbling, because as yet I haven't actually made any books available for people to read.* And it has to be said, I'm not finding it easy. I never have. When an interviewer asks me why I'd be the best candidate for the job, I always draw a blank. Not because I don't think I'm a fast learner and a team player and a giver of 110%,** but because I feel so awkward saying so. Yes, I'm clever and creative. Yes, I'm diligent and punctual and an asset to any company. But somehow, those words coming out of my mouth sound lame and unconvincing. It's not that I don't believe I'm good. It's simply that I'm not sure I'm the best.
Something similar happens when it comes to my writing. The internet seems to be full of people shouting look at me!, and I've never been the look-at-me type. More the reading-a-book-in-the-corner type. So although I think I'm a good writer and maybe even an interesting person, I struggle with letting the world know that. With putting my work out there in the confidence that it will be enjoyed. With making myself into a saleable package.
All this is a problem, because in writing as in so many other areas of life, it's often not the most talented people*** who get results but those who can best sell those talents. I always hoped that my work would speak for itself – I always thought that writing was the ideal profession for an introvert like me – but these days, the book itself is only the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the berg is made up of marketing, self-promotion and online presence: in other words, the sell. And as it turns out, I'm not terribly good at that bit.
Reading back through this, I realise it sounds a bit whiny – as though I'm yearning for the grand old days when writers just, well, wrote. But I'm not complaining, not really. I understand the fault lies with me. If anything, this post is intended as advice to anyone who's thinking about becoming a writer. Learn your craft. Learn how to write. But also learn how to sell yourself. You'll be thankful in the long run. Because great writing without the sell is like standing in the middle of a busy station and whispering announcements: no-one's going to hear you.****
As for me, if anyone has the faintest idea how I can get over my self-promotion phobia then please let me know …
* Though there's always the possibility I might sell myself to an agent or publisher. But that's another story.
** Kill me now.
*** I'm not saying I'm one of them, by the way. Though maybe I should be saying it … Argh. You see why I struggle with this stuff?
**** Conversely, the sell without great writing is like a marvellously enticing billboard that turns out to be promoting a scam. But again, that's another story – though not a very well-written one.
They say you can't, but they're clearly wrong. I judge books by their covers all the time – in the library, in shops, on other people's shelves. It's one area where my Kindle just can't give me the same experience as the real thing. A good cover is like walking into a hotel room and finding a freshly made bed with one corner of the quilt turned back: it invites you to climb inside. A bad cover, on the other hand, is like walking into the same room and finding a bed that someone else has just slept in: it leaves you with no desire to linger.
I hate to say it, but this is where self-published books often fall down. Authors tend to assume they can do everything, but the truth is that designing the cover is as much a specialist skill as writing the book in the first place. The font, the image, the layout: get any of them wrong, and your cover will look amateur. And if there's one thing a self-published author doesn't want, it's to look amateur.
Personally, if I don't like a book cover, I'll probably ignore the book. And if I think a cover looks unprofessional, I tend to assume what's behind it is unprofessional as well. You can write the best book in the entire universe, but if the cover looks like it was knocked up in two minutes using Photoshop, no-one will ever know how great you are.
So what makes a good cover? I can only base this on my own preferences – because, of course, no matter how professionally done a cover is, there'll always be some people who don't like it – but here are some recent covers from publishers both large and small that really stood out for me.
The Forever Girl by Rebecca Hamilton
I love this cover. I really do. The image is striking, chosen perfectly to appeal to the target audience. The font used for the book title is unusual and has some beautiful graphic touches. The whole thing gives a great flavour of what the book is about. If I saw this cover on a shelf in a store or library, I'd definitely pick the book up.
The End Specialist by Drew Magary
In contrast to the last cover, this one is very minimalist. But the single image of the Grim Reaper being slain raises all kinds of intriguing questions (plus as it turns out, the same image is referred to in the book itself, which is always a nice touch). I like the font, as well – it adds to the illustrative, almost calligraphic effect. Rather like Japanese art, its very simplicity pulls me in.
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
I may be biased on this one, because I love the book so much. But there's an awful lot to like about this cover: the graffiti-like title, the scribbled confusion of text at the sides (which again turns out to mean something), the violent red slash of the knife across the whole thing. It's not obvious what the book is about, but the cover has a real atmosphere to it that makes me want to find out.
What are some of your favourite recent covers? And what makes them good?
I'm currently reading a book – published by a well-respected and long-established publishing house – that I would class as pretty poorly written. It's not bad, in the sense of misspellings and grammatical errors everywhere, but nor does it shine. The prose is pedestrian, frequently verging on dull. The dialogue attribution is littered with unnecessary adverbs (and while I'm not averse to an adverb or two, you do start to notice them when they're used to modify every single speech verb). One of my favourite phrases so far is 'stared desultorily', which suggests to me that neither the author nor the editor understood the meaning of the word 'desultory' and the appropriateness, or otherwise, of applying it to a word so fixed and determined as 'stare'. And given all this, I can't help wondering: what was it about this book that was good enough to get published when so many others fall by the wayside?
The answer, of course, is the concept. Not even the plot – the initial idea. I've read an awful lot of YA books lately, and a large subset of them had two things in common. First, they each belonged to one of the two most popular teen genres at the moment, dystopian fiction or supernatural romance. And second, though none of them were particularly well written, plotted or executed, they all had an underlying concept that was sufficiently interesting for me to have picked up the book in the first place. Which, overall, makes me sad – all these books with so much potential, and yet it's gone largely unfulfilled.
Obviously publishers are going to chase trends. I get that. If something is popular then any business is going to want to ride the wave of that popularity while they still can. And because trends are fleeting, and publishing is a lengthy process, perhaps a decision has been taken to reduce the amount of time and money spent on editing. But (and this isn't just because it's my profession) I can't help but see that as a mistake. If traditional publishing houses want to survive in the current world of DIY and ebooks then as well as being more agile, they surely also need to maintain their quality. They have to be able to show that they add value. At present, many people still take the view that it's safer to buy a book from a mainstream publisher than it is from a self-publisher, because they know they'll be getting a certain level of polish. But with self-publishers becoming more savvy, that gap is closing. Which means the one thing traditional publishers can't afford is to churn out second-rate books just to cash in on a trend. It's that kind of thing that will start people questioning what they're for.
Having said all that, I suspect there may be another factor at work: namely, that what writers consider to be good writing isn't necessarily the same as what readers consider to be good writing. Unpublished writers have a tendency to gather in groups of like-minded individuals, where they spend their time getting picky over whether a sentence expressed one way is better than a sentence expressed a slightly different way. They swear religiously by rules like don't use too many adverbs and use one POV per scene. Yet most of the books I've read lately seem never to have come within spitting distance of those rules. And if that's the case, who are the rules for? Do most readers even care about the overuse of adverbs? Do we, the writers, have a duty to stick to our definition of good writing notwithstanding? Or are we just concentrating on the picky stuff as an excuse for why we haven't sold a million copies already, not realising that the publishers are right: concept is key? I don't have answers to any of these questions, but at the very least they're worth asking.