___WORDS FROM ME_____________________________________

experiments in ebooks (ii)

So having embarked upon the self-publishing route via, in this case at least, Amazon Kindle, you’ve come up with something of a reasonable length for people to download onto their eReader.

But it’s too soon to go ahead and throw caution aside and wait expectantly for your sales to shoot up and hit the million mark just yet.

First of all we’ve got to deal with the most important bit of all. Making sure the writing’s as good as it can be.

More than any other aspect of self-publishing, this is the part I’m most concerned about. Before my book HOUR OF THE BLACK WOLF was published, it was read by an editor and copy-editor, proofed and screened by eyes other than my own. (Though I did look over it too.) All with a view to catching mistakes and fixing them. There’s a simple rule: the more people there are looking at your book to make it better, the better your book’s going to be. And when the people looking at your book are professionals, that counts twice.

Much as it will be a help to have trusted friends look over your manuscript, the chances are they’re not professionals. They’re almost certainly not getting any money for doing it for you, are they? But it doesn’t make their comments invalid. You may not like what they have to say, but they’ve flagged things for a reason.

Listen to them, take on board what they say. Then be even harder on the work yourself.

Revise and revise it until you’re sick of the sight of it, so that you can’t even open the document file without feeling sick. I want you to think that the gears in your head are grinding to a halt because you’re working so hard on it. I want you to think you're having a seizure.

And then when you’ve done that, here’s what I want you to do.

Do it once more.

Do it line by line. Do it word by word. And don’t forget that you need a good overview of what’s going on, too. Otherwise you can lose sight of the bigger picture and wind up with a bunch of perfectly composed sentences that don’t work when you put them together.

Here’s the opening to the rough first draft of “What I Wouldn’t Give.”

When I first set eyes on Chrissie Rhodes I thought she was the kind of girl who took the weather with her. She had the most gorgeous blue eyes, hair the soft yellow of glorious honey, and a complexion that would make the marble statues in the Vatican look flawed. Standing under a long green awning outside an expensive hotel, she was ducking out of the rain as the pavements stained dark and people vanished into the stores for cover. The kind of shot you’d expect to see of a lonely heroine at the beginning of a romantic movie.
It was raining with a vengeance but for a long gliding sail of sunlight that lit the pavement and the awning around her, and I didn’t think twice about pulling over and stopping, even though I knew I’d pay hell trying to get back into traffic and much more if she were a cop in part of a sting operation. She came out from under her shelter, holding a large purse over her head to stop from getting soaked by the big spattering drops and she carried something long and thin that reminded me of an art folder in a flapping white plastic bag with her other hand.

I’d no idea, other than that it sounded like a Crowded House song, what that first line was about. As the story progressed and I learned more about Chrissie and her relationship to the protagonist – a private hire cab driver with a desperately ill son – I was able to go back and fix the line, give it some resonance with what was to follow. Here's what I changed it to:

When I first set eyes on Chrissie Rhodes, I thought she was the kind of girl who could make the heavens sing.
She was a piece of work, all right, with strong blue eyes, soft yellow hair, straight white teeth, and one of those tanned complexions you see airbrushed to perfection on the covers of supermarket magazines.
Standing under a long, green awning outside an expensive hotel in the middle of the city of York, she’d ducked out of the rain just as the pavements began to stain and people vanished into the stores for cover. Ancient architecture darkened around her and the past whirled about on leathery wings. It was the kind of shot you’d expect to see at the beginning of a romantic movie.
A gliding sail of sunlight lit her amidst the old stonework, and I didn’t think twice about pulling over and stopping, even though I’d pay hell trying to get back into traffic. It was all instinct on my part, even then.
Acting without thinking. Being lured on by some desire I wasn’t prepared to admit to.
As soon as it arrived, the sunlight passed over her, leaving her suddenly small and lost, and the deluge began. Thick heavy rain accompanied by rumblings of thunder.

The rest of the revision is pretty much self-explanatory. It was about making it neater, giving a sense of place and upping the pace. Take out the gruesome clichés and replace them with some prettier ones. (Though of course, ideally, we don’t have clichés at all.) It’s not literature as we know it, Jim, but it’s the best I could do with what I had.

This line here

Acting without thinking. Being lured on by some desire I wasn’t prepared to admit to.

could do with an explanatory note. Purists might argue that it would be better presented as

Acting without thinking; being lured on by some desire to which I wasn’t prepared to admit.

And while that’s as maybe, it’s always worth remembering Elmore Leonard’s Golden Rule. If something reads like writing, rewrite it so that it doesn’t.

Our protagonist is speaking to us in the first person. We’ve got to allow for some grammatical quirks in that, to create that impression. Even though we know that really we’re reading a story.

It doesn’t give you licence to throw in every cliché and stock phrase under the moon, just “because people talk like that”; we are, after all, trying to produce something of beauty here, however grim and squalid it might be. But it means we don’t have to follow every strict rule of usage to the letter.

All of this stuff has to be thought about. Maybe not in first draft form – I certainly didn’t; in the first draft it was about finding out what happened in the story – but in the revisions. And when it comes to revising to self-publish (or, for that matter, to try and sell to a magazine or anthology), it’s equally important. You’ve got to do the work. I can't emphasise that enough. You’ve got to make each line as good as it can be, while being aware of every single line and word in relation to all the other words and lines in your piece.

It’s hard work. But you have to do it. Be aware of repetition. Be aware of trying too hard not to repeat words. Be aware of everything you can be aware of. Otherwise why are you bothering? What was the point?

And finally, once you’ve finished and made it the absolute best it can be, you’ve got to forgive yourself for failing. Because it can never be perfect. Because no matter how good you are you are not a god. As soon as someone else reads it they’ll find flaws. And when that happens, as it will, you can only be honest with yourself and hold your hand up and say I did the best I could.

Anything less is the crime, not that you didn’t make a perfect piece of art.

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