The Legacy of the (Self-)Published Word

Written for Writers Helping Writers, January 7, 2014.

Storytelling is more than a way to share fantasies—it is an avenue for self-expression, a means by which to convey thoughts and have them absorbed by numerous strangers and possibly influence their beliefs.

For centuries the printing press was critical in spreading the news of uprisings and advancements, but the cost of doing so was prohibitive to most individuals. Today anyone can craft their words of hope, peace, controversy, and revolution, and then upload a file without cost. In what seems like but a beat of our hearts, that message is in the hands of the masses. If you then file your work with the Library of Congress, the words are now theoretically eternal.

Doesn’t that sound romantic? It can be. To some, self-publishing is an enchanting dance partner. However, there are many potential authors who have created lovely stores that they fear sharing. Self-doubt is a vicious beast, and in order to be an author, be it traditional of self-published, you have to possess a thick skin.

Criticism is inevitable, but self-doubt is conquerable.

So how do you get through the daunting task of creating a polished, self-published book and doing it with confidence both in your writing and in the physical product?

1. Don’t let the process discourage you. Many would-be authors quit after writing a few chapters because they feel their prose is horrible. These are exactly the people who should keep writing! When you can recognize that something needs improvement, it shows that you will only release your best work. This should build your confidence, not diminish it.

Read about the craft of writing, and then take it a step further by applying the lessons to books that have affected you. Rivet Your Readers With Deep Point of View by Jill Elizabeth Nelson helped me to understand how in The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton’s style immersed me in Ponyboy’s head. Once you start connecting the dots between lesson and result, writing becomes easier.

2. Polish the heck out of that thing! Don’t concern yourself with the number of drafts you should write. Focus on going through as many drafts as you need to strengthen your work. Seek out critique partners to assist you. Critique partners are fellow writers who help you analyze your story, writing style, and voice. They can be found in in-person and on-line groups, like Critique Circle.

Critique groups intimidated me until I realized I was just in with the wrong crowd. I then co-founded Authors Helping Authors, a Facebook group where authors help each other through various parts of the writing process including critiques, beta reading, formatting, and promotion. Becoming a part of the right social community helped make the process fun again.

3. Next, edit for typos and grammar issues. Go through that baby with a fine-toothed comb!

One of my favorite sites is Grammar Girl. Taking a few minutes each day to read one of Mignon Fogarty’s short articles will crank up your grammar knowledge in no time! To find simple errors, my favorite trick is to use the Find feature in Word to seek commonly misused words, like “than” versus “then.” I then verify the usage. My self-editing cheat sheet can be found HERE.

4. Now that you have polished, buffed, and shined, you should be confident enough for a very big step—having people “beta read” your book. A beta reader looks for holes in your story along with boring sections, rambling, and stuff that plain does not make sense. Thus, you never want a beta reader to be someone whom you know will always tell you the book is brilliant. You actually want beta readers to point out problems because it is better to hear issues in beta than in a review.

Note that this step has a different purpose than working with a critique partner. A beta reader evaluates the reading experience while a critique partner helps you fix the problem. Book bloggers and avid readers in your genre make excellent beta readers.

5.Analyze the suggested improvements. You don’t need to make them all, but if two out three readers say the same thing, you really should listen.

6. Repeat steps 3-5 until you feel the story is ready. Then send it out for professional proof reading to catch the typos you missed. If you can’t afford a professional, see if your local college will put you in touch with English majors. They love doing this kind of work and will do it inexpensively. However, hire more than one, because a student does not have the experience of a professional. Never release a book that has not been proofed by people who understand the proper use of grammar, and never do it all yourself. No matter what route you go, try before you buy. Send the proofreader a small test document that you know contains errors and see how much they catch.

7. People do judge books by their blurbs and covers. Not only must a blurb be concise and absolutely error free, it must also make the reader NEED to read the book! Blurb writing is an art form must be taken seriously. Amy Wilkins from Harlequin has wonderful advice for writing a top-notch blurb.

There are many fantastic cover artists available at reasonable rates. However, don’t just tell someone to come up with a cover based off of your blurb. Do some investigating and find samples or stock art that convey the proper emotions. A cover designer will not read your story. Regardless of who does your cover, find the right person, because a cheap cover gets noticed in the wrong way.

8. Once you feel that all of your hard work has paid off and you have produced your very best art, face the world with confidence. Know that bad reviews are inevitable, but so are great ones! You can’t control another person’s thoughts regarding your work, only your own, so know that you are amazing and have done something so few dare.

Do you have something that you feel others need to hear? Self-publishing just might be the way. So craft your message with passion, buff and polish it until it shines, then go ahead and upload that document. Hit that publish button and send your masterpiece into the world. Who knows, you might just create a legacy that will influence lives for generations to come.

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