SWEATING THE SMALL STUFF
It’s never been more difficult to see your novel published, and never easier – it’s such a best and worst of times in the industry, it’s practically Dickensian.
Traditional publishers, particularly in Australia, are squeezing their belts so tightly that new work, or work that sits too far outside the marketing boxes, increasingly rarely gets a look-in at all. Gone are the days when authors routinely enjoyed long and developmental relationships with publishers; worryingly, many authors are shut out from having any meaningful conversation with those who bring their work into the world. For many in traditional publishing it seems that novels represent a series of spread-sheet challenges, and the joy of making books becomes lost in the confuddling numbers.
It’s no wonder then that so many are turning to independent publishers and self-publishing. Before anyone sneers – and, boyo, have I heard some sneering about those who dare to go it alone, those who have the temerity to step outside the corporate structure and back themselves – I think self-publishers are some of the bravest among us. For the record, I also believe that everyone does have a book in them – a story, a grand narrative – and that it’s there for each of us to explore if or when we need to. Setting out on that expedition into your own soul will always be one of the noblest, if one of the most insane things you’ll ever do.
As you’d know if you follow this blog, I get to experience these bests and worsts from both sides of the fence – as author and as editor. Occasionally, and most deliciously, I also get to do some consultancy work that brings new writing to my desk for appraisal, and the latest batch of manuscripts I’ve read have been sparkling, exciting, both for their originality and for the elastic-brained daring of their authors. They are the reason I will never give up my editorial hat.
But they make me fret, too. Two of the manuscripts in particular have been haunting me with the question: who is going to publish these novels? Who would take the risk? Both of the novels, in my opinion, were just about ready to roll – ready to be received by an editor in preparation for publication – but neither neatly ticks a genre box, or a literary fashion box. Is it good enough that these novels might never be published simply because no traditional publisher is willing to invest in them?
The answer to that last question must be no.
Neither of these authors has the means to invest thousands in paying someone to edit and publish their work for them, though (or to risk their money on some of the sharks out there). If they were to self-publish, they’d have to avail themselves of the free DIY services that split profits on copies sold, and they’d have to carve down their non-existent editorial budgets to include only a thorough proofread.
Scary, when you’re on your own, and when you care deeply about the quality of your work. How do you know then when your novel is ready to meet your public?
If this is ringing any bells for you – if you’ve been told by a few editors now that your work is definitely publishable but ‘just not right for our list, thank you’ – here is a list of mine that might be of some help, some tools you can use for that final polish, to give you confidence in pressing the print button if you choose to go for the solo-flight option of self-publishing.
- Read your work aloud – to a (very patient) friend or to yourself – in its entirety. Listen for any inconsistencies in voice, in the rhythm of your prose, anything that strikes a false note.
- Pay careful attention to dialogue: cut out incidental or trivial chitchat; cut any speech that does not deepen understanding for the reader or move the story forward. Ensure that all speech sounds natural and is in keeping with the character delivering it.
- Hunt down clichés of all kinds (unless deliberate) and kill them.
- Hunt down repetitions of words or phrases (again, unless deliberate) and kill them, too. Look out especially for character traits or actions that might be overused – such as smiling or sighing or winking, etc.
- Interrogate every sentence for meaning, paying very specific attention to vagueness and ambiguity. Readers should be intrigued by the story and the characters, rather than grappling with the prose.
- Cut out unnecessary adverbs: ‘very’ and ‘really’ are the usual suspects here, but less adverbs, generally, is more. Particularly look for adverbs that describe verbs – those pesky ones that usually end in ‘-ly’ – such as ‘particularly’, ‘gently’, ‘badly’, etc – and prune them right back to only those you feel are essential for meaning and mood.
- Take a very fine tooth comb to consistency of character and continuity of action. If Jack has green eyes, make sure those eyes are green throughout the whole manuscript; likewise, if Chapter Two ended with Flossy being kidnapped by terrorists in Kabul, make sure that wherever she ends up when next we pick up her story thread, all elements of her situation are plausible and flow logically from where we left off.
- If your narrative contains facts – historical, social, scientific, geographic, etc – check every single one twice.
- Check the meaning of every damn word, and make sure you’ve used each one correctly. Check your spelling while you’re at it. Just about every proofreader I’ve ever worked with has been worth their weight in gold but they can’t be expected to pick up every mistake across a 100,000-word manuscript. Do the job properly yourself, and the proofreader is only picking up the odd mistake you’ve missed. Doing this means that you’ll save on proofreading costs, too, as most charge by the hour.
- Finally, don’t try and do all the above in the one read. Take your time; do it all as methodically and as dispassionately as possible, with the clearest eyes you can find.
And good luck! The times they are a’changing, but it’s always the most courageous among us who come up trumps – even if trumps is simply the creation of a novel you alone are proud to hold aloft: something small but exceptionally beautiful that only you could have made.