The Internet is a wonderful thing, for a lot of reasons. But sometimes it’s a mixed blessing. Today’s topic is self-published fiction. In the old days, if you had written a novel and found that agents and publishers weren’t interested, your options were limited. You could order 500 copies of your book, and then those heavy cartons of books would sit in your closet until you figured out how to distribute them (or more likely, figured out that there was no practical way to distribute them).
Today authors can avail themselves of such options as Kindle (no paper at all) and print-on-demand websites with their own digital marketplace. No cartons! The shipping to customers taken care of automagically! A paradise!
On the other side of the ledger, the physical bookstore is in decline. Competition for shelf space on the remaining retail outlets is fierce.
Welcome to the brave new world of self-publishing.
The reason I bring this up is because there’s a real danger in self-publishing. Well, not a real danger, except to your ego and to the tender sensibilities of your prospective readers. The danger is that it’s quite easy to crank out very, very bad fiction without realizing that that’s what you’re doing.
In the old days, if no publisher could be enticed to put your book on their spring or fall list, your best bet was to try harder. To learn, that is, how to write better — how to produce manuscripts that would compete successfully with those of other professionals. These days, the default response to rejection (if indeed an aspiring writer bothers to try getting into the mainstream market at all) is to say, “Fuck all that. I’ll publish it myself!”
This is a dangerous decision, because it bypasses quality control.
I’m sure there are a few wonderful self-published novels out there. I haven’t found any yet, but I haven’t yet put a lot of energy into looking. A survey of self-published fantasy is on my to-do list. But I’m pretty sure I know what I’ll find. I can confidently predict that 98% of the self-published fiction out there is dreck.
Why am I so sure? Because over the years I’ve read quite a lot of manuscripts by aspiring authors who were in need of serious help. The mistakes you can fall into, as an aspiring author, are many and varied. Trying to list even the most common of them would be a labor worthy of Hercules. Also, illustrative examples would be needed, and I wouldn’t want to subject any aspiring writer to a public dissection of his or her shortcomings.
Instead, I’ll limit myself to one basic observation. When you read a fine novel by a professional author whose work you admire, the craft of writing is invisible. It’s right there on the page, but you can’t see it. The prose seems effortless — it just flows! But that’s the illusion, the quicksand, the bear trap. A good writer has mastered the craft. A first page that seems entirely natural and straightforward to you as a reader may be the tenth draft. The plot may have been torn apart and put back together several times.
Aspiring writers don’t recognize this. The novels they admire seem to flow effortlessly, so they tend, I think, to assume that they can sit back and let their own story flow out effortlessly. They feel inspired! They write! They’re pleased with what they’ve written! They’re sure readers will be just as pleased!
Wrong. Dead wrong.
For most of us, learning to write well takes years of patient effort. This is a good reason to start by writing short stories, by the way. A short story that falls apart, or that when completed is a dismal failure, takes a week or two to write, rather than a year. You can learn the craft far more quickly by writing stories.
Trust me on this. Of the first fifteen science fiction/fantasy stories that I wrote, back in the early ’80s, fourteen were unpublishable. They were rejected by the SF magazines, and rightly so. One of them I sold. And at that point I had already been a full-time professional writer and editor of nonfiction for more than five years! I had mastered the mechanics of English prose (an area where some aspiring writers of fiction fall flat on their faces). I just didn’t know how to tell a good story, except by accident.
The world is full of good books on how to write fiction. Buy a few. Buy a few more. Read them from cover to cover. Underline salient passages.
There are, I’m aware, aspiring writers — perhaps more than a few of them — who don’t want to read how-to-write books because they’re afraid that their native inspiration and artistic uniqueness will be spoiled. If you’re tempted by that theory, it’s safe to say you’re doomed. No more than one aspiring writer in ten thousand has an instinctive grasp of the principles of fiction writing so sure that he or she will be able to produce high-quality work without an extended study of the craft.
Naturally, you think you’re that one writer in ten thousand.