Tag Archives: publishing

Affordable Editing for Indie Authors

As indie publishing1 matures, the need for new editing approaches has become apparent, with some freelance editors changing their protocols to accommodate indie authors looking for affordable editing and copyediting.

In traditional publishing, the standard process has always involved several steps, with the ms. (manuscript) being returned to the author for revision and corrections between steps; this is one reason a trad pubbed book takes between a year and two from acceptance to release. These stages are typically:

Edit (general); line edit; copyedit; proofread. There may even be a major developmental edit before the general edit.

Since each of these steps requires a careful and complete read of the ms. as well as annotation, the traditional process quickly becomes expensive: a line or copyedit on a novel will easily take forty to fifty hours or more. It’s therefore obvious that the traditional sequence of editing tasks, costing upwards of $5,000 at a minimum, will be beyond the means of all but a very few indie authors and small presses.

And yet, most indie authors of even moderate experience are aware that the success of their book may well depend on it being properly edited and proofread: the days of just completing a novel and uploading it to Amazon full of errors and inconsistencies are (thankfully) long gone. For those who still do it, their book is likely to get awful reviews, if it gets any, and sink like a stone.

Before discussing solutions, let’s make sure we define our terms, because there’s a lot of confusion on what the various stages of editing are:

  • General Editing. Will address macro issues of the draft ms. like plot and character arcs, poor plot logic, passages and scenes that aren’t working well, stylistic issues, etc.  Sometimes referred to as substantive or developmental editing, a general edit is similar to a critique in that it reviews the ms. as a whole; unlike a critique, this edit provides more specific and detailed recommendations, and offers solutions to the problems identified.
  • Line Editing. A more detailed and intensive edit whose aim is to improve the flow, pacing, polish, and overall readability of the work. Line editing addresses, among much else, dialogue, style, grammar, tense, and syntax issues. Will typically include suggestions and examples for revising and rewording sentences paragraphs that need improvement.
  • Copyediting: The pre-final pass through a ms., copyediting looks at the fine detail, including punctuation, consistency, capitalization, formatting, and anything missed at the line editing stage. The copyeditor is also responsible for fact-checking.
  • Proofreading: strictly limited to checking spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, verb tense, and consistency in formatting. Proofreading is usually the final step before a document goes to print.

That’s the process in traditional publishing, and it’s still the way things are done in the big houses, although even they’re starting to cut corners for new and even some midlist authors whose books aren’t expected to become big hits.

As a freelancer, I’ve worked to come up with a solution that offers the best possible value for the indie author on a tight budget. My goal here is to catch and correct as much as possible on a single pass through the ms. as well as providing some remedy for new errors that might be introduced (it happens) when the author implements some of the suggested fixes turned up by my edit.

I call this one-pass edit the Single Edit Solution, and it comprises full line editing plus copyediting (see definitions above) as well as some limited general editing/developmental guidance where needed; examples of this would be a character behaving inconsistently, logical errors, flat scenes, continuity issues, etc.  In the case of novels, I include a provision for post-edit checking of up to 2,000 words of rewritten material at no additional cost. This last is aimed at solving the problem of new errors being introduced post-edit.

If you’re interested in knowing more, simply drop me a line at dariowriter (at-sign) gmail (dot) com. You can find my rates here, as well as references from current clients.

“I’m delighted at each opportunity to work with Dario Ciriello, who vastly improves my story and writing with every editing pass. He works with warmth and compassion to boot, supporting me as a writer and a person as we puzzle out thorny writing issues that would otherwise be demoralizing to tackle on my own. Dario has edited three of my novels so far, and I look forward to a long-term working relationship together.”

William Hertling, author of the highly-acclaimed 2016 tech thriller “Kill Process” and the hit “Avogadro Corp.” series of SF/tech thrillers.   http://www.williamhertling.com

Notes

1 For this purposes of this article, I’m using the term “indie” to include self-published authors

Check out my guest post, “Breathe! The Copyeditor has your Back” at Fiction University

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Questioning Critique

It’s been said that a writer fluctuates between believing they’re the best writer in the world and the worst writer in the world—and in some cases, that they hold both views at the same time.

The point is well-made. When the creative faculty is fully engaged and the characters on the page writhe and pulse with life, the writer is in heaven; but when the inbuilt editor that any good writer possesses kicks in, or the work runs aground on any of a myriad possible shoals, the writer is convinced his work is crap.

Writers work in isolation. They’re very close to their work. And a piece of fiction is a dynamic, interdependent, sometimes fantastically complex web of forces and relationships. It’s therefore vital, as the work approaches its final completion, for the writer to get outside feedback.

Over the last dozen years I’ve participated in or mentored several critique groups, as well as founding one (“Written in Blood”) several of whose members are now widely published and have even won major awards. I firmly believe in the now standard writer’s group critique process.

And yet I’ve begun to see its limitations. Bear with me as I approach my point obliquely.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about my dislike of the way the publishing industry, steered as it is by suits and the pressing imperatives of the market, is increasingly adopting the Hollywood approach, where everyone gets input on the final result. I personally know of several authors whose book was turned down by a publisher because the marketing department had issues with it (sometimes just because it didn’t fit a clear category) despite the fact that the editorial team were unanimous in approving and wanting to acquire it.

My point is that when we try to second-guess, we can always, always find issues; and in addressing those issues, we end up making so many changes that we can suck all the life and uniqueness out of a work. Today, a book is first critiqued, often multiple times, before going to the author’s agent, who often initiates a whole new round of revisions; and then the same occurs at the publishing house. This in my view is why so many genre books today seem generic, formulaic, and about as exciting as the kind of art that hangs in bank lobbies and Comfort Inn rooms.

I’m beginning to think that the word “critique” itself is problematic (the etymology goes back to the Greek word, krites, a judge) and tends to slant the process towards fault-finding; “evaluation” may ultimately be closer to what a writer needs, but I’m probably splitting hairs.

Let me be clear: I do believe writers should seek critique and feedback**, and am not for one instant devaluing the formal writers’ critique group. But as we grow as writers, we need to be really sure that the type and direction of critique we’re receiving is keeping pace with our skills, and that our beta readers “get” our work and our intent. Writers need to be very aware that it’s easy to critique anything to death. Tangents and irrelevancies creep in as the well-meaning critiquer casts around to address anything which may raise a question. In this fishing process, things may be caught which materially and subtly contribute to the flavour and uniqueness of the story; and in their doubt, the writer, once alerted, removes or alters the item, and in the process diminishes the final work, bringing it closer to the ordinary.

As an example of this, imagine a Gothic, claustrophobic tale set in a remote castle. In the process of critique, one or more readers may feel that they want to know more about the world outside. What’s going on there? Why doesn’t anyone in the castle go down to the village for supplies? Where do they get their water? And so on. These questions may be fair and even relevant, but there’s every danger that an insecure writer, in attempting to address them to please some theoretical contingent of readers, begins to put in sentences or scenes or infodumps which degrade the atmosphere of isolation and claustrophobia and consequently lessen the power of the work.

Even more of a minefield is the advice frequently given in critique about adverbs, flashbacks, show don’t tell, etc.; while all the standard writing advice is founded on solid principles, it takes true maturity to understand its limits; and likewise to know how and when to break the rules.

The point of critique isn’t to make the story or book attain some theoretical ideal of perfection (ideals which are usually based on writerly dogma and oversimplified writing “rules” than anything else); the point is to end up with a publishable piece of fiction which readers will enjoy and which communicates the creator’s vision in as unalloyed a form as possible. The mature writer needs to have the self-confidence and feel sufficiently secure to say, “no: enough”.

Perhaps this is why most pro authors, or even those who are multiply published, seem to move on from formal critique groups and instead pass their manuscripts on to a very small, handpicked circle of other mature authors for beta reading, people who they know will “get” exactly what they’re striving for, and what the reader wants, rather than taking more of a scattergun approach to finding fault in the manuscript. The line may be a fine one, but it is, in my experience, very real.

To my mind, the best beta readers and editors will understand the distinction between on the one hand fully respecting the author’s intent, direction, vision, and style, and on the other, obsessing over some cookie-cutter notion of what the market wants and what constitutes good writing. The focus needs to be on two things only: what the writer intends, and what matters to readers. Nothing else.

And that’s all it ever was about.

What do you think?

_____________

**In fact, I offer manuscript evaluation/critique and copyediting services for writers—see main menu bar above

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Turn, Turn, Turn

Last week I made the very difficult decision to stop publishing novels and restructure Panverse. Despite some small success and the immense pleasure of having helped launch several new and extremely talented authors and five excellent books, the workload is far too heavy for one person to carry. Since many of you reading this are writers and/or self-/indie publishers who may benefit from the knowledge, and some are our readers, I’m going to go into a little detail. I’d also rather have facts out there than wild rumour and fabrication.

As some of you will know, after putting out the acclaimed Panverse Three anthology in 2011, I decided to stop publishing anything beyond my own work. Although stories from my anthologies had received several award nominations and won the 2011 Sidewise Award, the returns were small and the work substantial.

At the end of 2012, a writer friend approached me. She wanted to invest in Panverse and work with me to expand it beyond Science Fiction and Fantasy anthologies and begin publishing novels across genres. We were both excited and energized. Unfortunately, soon after we signed our agreement, unexpected life circumstances intervened which made it impossible for her to participate in running the company; but by then we already had several books under contract.

In the course of the next year, I edited, copyedited, formatted, and singlehandedly–with the exception of cover design–published six books, as well as working part-time. The effort was brutal, but I got the books out on the market in both digital and print form, and they look fabulous. Our authors were happy. Our 50% across-the-board author royalty is on a par with the absolute best in the industry, and our quarterly sales and royalty reporting detailed and utterly transparent. This is an achievement.

Beyond the workload, though, I discovered just how heavily the deck is stacked against the small indie using POD (Print on Demand): mainstream reviewers won’t touch you; book bloggers are either overloaded, unprofessional, or both; your print costs are high; and brick-and-mortar bookstores, for all their talk about supporting indie publishers, are so locked into the odious returns system1 that they won’t give you the time of day, let alone stock your titles, unless you give them a consignment deal–which is an impossibility unless the store is very local. Amazon, it must be said, is your only friend.

This is not to say that a solo indie author can’t succeed: clearly, many have, and I did with my first book, “Aegean Dream”, which has now passed 6,000 copies in sales. But trying to grow an indie that publishes work by several other authors across genres, while still writing, and all singlehandedly, has proved extremely demanding, to put it mildly. If asked, I’d say a minimum of two or three people are needed to pull it off, and one of them needs to be a marketing whiz.

Since well over 600,000 books were published in the US last year–that’s over 1,600 a day–getting noticed is an incredible challenge faced by every author and every publisher. Even many titles put out by the big five publishers sink without a trace, with the vast majority of the marketing dollars going to a few proven authors with track records and to celebrity authors.

On top of this, readers are increasingly distracted, buried in devices, games, social media, and, yes, other books all competing for their fragmented attention. Without a massive publicity effort (and budget), what makes a book successful is mainly reader word-of-mouth and simple luck, wild cards over which the publisher has no control.

I’m immensely proud of both our authors and the quality of the physical books Panverse has put out in the last eighteen months, and reader reviews back this up (check out, for instance, the consistently solid five-star reviews of Bonnie Randall’s Divinity and The Python): our authors rock. These people deserve huge success.

But despite all the hard work, no book can succeed without a lot of support and word-of mouth, and I have no more to give. Panverse has eaten my life for eighteen months, and I have my own writing and projects that have languished. Instead of letting things fall apart, I decided to cut the cord.

This is not the end of Panverse. At the end of this year, the corporation will be dissolved and Panverse LLC will go back to being simply myself DBA (doing business as) Panverse Publishing. All rights for their novels will revert to our authors, who will then either self-publish or find other, more established presses. I’ll continue to publish my own works under the Panverse banner, as well as any SFF anthologies I might decide to put out (Panverse Four is already in the works).

If you’ve enjoyed any of the titles Panverse has published, I truly hope that you’ll sign up for our monthly newsletter on the website–it takes thirty seconds–, where I’ll continue to inform our friends not only of new Panverse titles but also of new books by the authors we’ve published over the last eighteen months–Doug Sharp, Bonnie Randall, T.L. Morganfield, Richard Weinstein, and Don D’Ammassa; and of course I have new books and story collections of my own coming as well, and am planning audiobooks of Aegean Dream and my novel, Sutherland’s Rules.

The newsletter is just once monthly, we keep your details private, and we never spam. And if you’ve not yet read any of our titles, perhaps you’ll check them out on the Panverse website, where you can preview and directly download most titles as eBooks; and of course print and digital editions are available from all online booksellers.

Thanks so much for your interest in Panverse, in our authors, and in me. I hope that you’ll support me in moving forward.

Onwards!

1 The returns system began during the great depression, when publishers started to offer cash-strapped bookstores books on a returnable basis if they weren’t sold within six months or a year. After that, the books could either be destroyed or returned to the warehouse and the cost refunded to the bookseller., Unfortunately, this system has persisted to the present day, and is immensely costly in accounting, in hard dollar, and in environmental terms (I could find no hard data, but the number of returned books annually is certainly well into the millions, and probably in the tens of millions). If this system were ended–something no publisher has yet had the courage to do–the retail price of print books would probably drop by 20% or so at a stroke. The traditional book publishing and distribution model is so broke it’s laughable; but although we have the technology in place to utterly change it, nobody seems keen to really take a swipe at it. Material, perhaps, for another blog post.

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Panverse, Publishing, and Hollywood: I’m Back.

Last night my wife and I watched the 1997 Science Fiction film, “Contact.” And, like 95% of the SF movies I see, it annoyed the living hell out of me. Why? Because it was a copout*.

The movie was a copout because it took no risks. In a genre where you can do anything, here was yet another contemptible example of the failure of imagination, the refusal to take risks. The movie fails largely by resorting to tedious tropes: the ambitious politician, the evil, scheming intelligence baron, the tedious attempt to reconcile the dichotomy between faith and science, the heavy-handed, tired message that humanity is at a crossroads between self-destruction and transformation. Oh, please. We knew all this five decades ago.

In trying to reduce the ineffable mystery of being to a comforting, human scale, the movie manages only one thing: to reassert traditional, even Christian values and fill the viewer’s mind with a bland mush—which, comforting as it may be to some, gets us nowhere. It’s the cultural equivalent of the heliocentric view of the world. Given the choice, I’d prefer to watch something like “The Core,” which, though truly awful, is at least honestly and unpretentiously awful, and actually provides a good deal more entertainment value.

The last good SF movie I saw was the 1971 Tarkovsky film, “Solaris” (my impressions of which can be found in this post). Beyond being a daring, exceptional film by any standards, “Solaris” was true Science Fiction because it rejected convenient tropes and succeeded in communicating the inexplicable strangeness of the universe and the ultimate isolation of the human condition, rather than trying to simply comfort the viewer and rake in maximum bucks. “Solaris” was art; “Contact” was visual junk food. And no prizes for guessing which made the most money.

Publishing today has just about caught up with Hollywood. Art and vision long ago went out the window, taking theme and relevance with them. Like Hollywood, no novel gets published without being heavily breathed on and hammered into formulaic conformity by several people, which likely include at minimum the author’s agent, the publishing house’s editor, and the marketing department. The result—at least in genre publishing—is an interminable deluge of fast-moving, relentlessly formulaic stories which are all event and movement without much content. If a story doesn’t conform to the iron requirements of genre and category dictated by marketers (e.g., no Romance without an HEA—happily Ever After—ending stands a chance of publication); if a protagonist isn’t relentlessly proactive; if the characters don’t all change in direct conformity to the industry-standard arc; if  the ending doesn’t resolve with all the  plot strands tidied up; forget it. Under these parameters, many of the  world’s greatest classics and most thoughtful, interesting novels wouldn’t ever see print today.

Oh, there are exceptions, of course. Once in a while, a standout will get through, like, say, “The Good Fairies of New York,” but those are very likely coming from an indie press or self-publishers.

And therein lies the only hope for risk-takers and nonconformist writers who put art, integrity, and theme front and center. Because if it doesn’t fit the suffocating template of Big Publishing’s category and genre obsession, it isn’t going to be published. I know too many good writers, even agented, Name writers, with excellent mss. that don’t stand a chance with the majors.

Which brings me to my own venture, Panverse Publishing.

I started Panverse in 2009 because I wanted to provide a venue for new SFF writers working at novella length, a then very underserved niche. As an example of how shortsighted even the relatively open SF market can be, I had the incredible fortune to be offered—and was delighted to publish—Ken Liu’s searing novella, “The Man Who Ended History,” which went on to receive terrific reviews and was nominated for both the  Hugo and Nebula Award. How telling that it took an unknown to publish it.

After publishing three annual anthologies of five novellas each, stories from which garnered several award nominations and one win (The Sidewise Award for Alan Smale’s 2010 novella, “A Clash of Eagles”), as well as a collection of short stories titled “Eight Against Reality,” I published my own bittersweet travel memoir, “Aegean Dream.”

“Aegean Dream” had been with my then agent over a year; but despite her best efforts, and several nice notes from editors saying how they loved the writing, nobody would touch it because it (i) didn’t conform to the saccharin “A Year in so-and-so” travel memoir formula, and (ii) at 135k words, it was at least 40% too long for the market category.

With zero advertising and no bookstore presence, “Aegean Dream,” published in both digital and POD edition by Panverse, sold almost 4,000 copies in 2012, was #1 book in both Greece categories on Amazon UK for over three months, and is looking set to sell strongly again in 2013. In addition, I was approached by Poland’s largest travel book publisher, Pascal, who noticed its success in the UK and are now in the  process of preparing the Polish language edition, due for release in July.

After a great deal of thought, I decided to call it a day with Science Fiction as both a writer and (with rare exceptions) as a publisher, for two reasons. First, as a lifelong fan and voracious SF reader, I’m rather disappointed by what’s going on in the field today (not much, IMO); secondly, it’s too limiting. And not just SF—any genre is limiting. When our very lives don’t observe genre boundaries, why on Earth should fiction? Readers, in my experience, are far, far smarter than most publishers give them credit for: they largely don’t give a fig about all the formulas, templates, and constraints the industry’s barons and gatekeepers typically try to impose on them—readers want a good book which is both well-written, well-produced, and which, most of all, entertains them, period. And if it breaks a few “rules,” and still works, all the better.

So, after much consideration, Panverse has moved from simply publishing SFF anthologies and my own work to being a real indie press. We have six novels and one nonfiction title coming out this year, and more scheduled for 2014. We have no separate imprints, no genre or category restrictions—our single and overriding mission is to publish books that absorb, reward, and stimulate the reader. Books that make the reader think, that affect them, that surprise them. Books that are about something rather than just being a breathless succession of events; books that are well-written and produced; books that stick with the reader long after the story ends.

The first Panverse title of 2013 is out, and it’s my own caper/thriller, “Sutherland’s Rules” (reviews at Amazon, Goodreads, et al). Best described as an intelligent caper/thriller with elements of the police procedural and the spy novel, finished off with just a shimmer of the fantastic, “Sutherland’s Rules” moves fast and introduces the reader to characters I hope they’ll enjoy and remember. Most of all, the novel is about something—in fact, several “somethings”—beyond the externalities of the plot; please check it out, and read an excerpt here.

As the year progresses, I’ll be posting more about Panverse’s upcoming books, my own work (I’ve just begun on the next novel), and, as usual, my occasionally eccentric and even contrarian musings on life. If you care to send your friends a link, I’d be absolutely delighted. You can also find both myself and Panverse Publishing on Facebook and Twitter, and of course sign up for this blog’s feed via the “Follow” link on left sidebar.

Thanks for visiting, and come back soon!

* The original Carl Sagan novel was rather more interesting, but not much.



What’s your take on this?

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The Last Post

All good things come to an end.

In the eight months and 48 posts since I started this blog, we’ve had some fun together, and hopefully I made a few people think and sparked some good discussion. But as I prepare to publish my novel, Sutherland’s Rules, begin work on the next, take Panverse Publishing to the next level starting with six new titles in 2013, all while still having a life… well, something has to go. (This blog won’t be deleted, though, so archived posts will remain available).

It’s also becoming very clear to me that the world simply doesn’t need another writing blog. That said, for those of us who are writers, there are a very few writing blogs that I consider absolutely indispensable, and which explore the craft at a level far beyond the mundane. These are:

My most heartfelt thanks to all of you who’ve visited, read my posts, humoured me, commented, joined in my contests, etc. I’d love to stay in touch with you all and know what you’re up to, so please join me on Twitter (@Dario_Ciriello) and/or friend me on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/dario.ciriello).

Finally, I’d like to tell you a little about Panverse Publishing and my plans for it. Please bear with me a few moments, since, writer or reader, you may hear something to your advantage…

PANVERSE PUBLISHING is a critically-acclaimed small press dedicated to publishing story-rich work by new writers and established professionals. Stories from our anthologies have received several award nominations, including a Hugo and Nebula, and won the 2011 Sidewise Award; my own nonfiction title, ‘Aegean Dream,’ was the #1 nonfiction book on Greece on Amazon UK for 14 weeks this summer.

Starting now, Panverse will not be limiting itself solely to short fiction or Science Fiction and Fantasy titles, but will instead be publishing long form fiction (novels) for a broader audience, as well as some nonfiction.

Panverse will be publishing, both print and digitally, new voices telling unusual stories. Agents and publishers are taking no chances today, with the result that some extremely gifted new writers, and many established writers whose stories don’t fit the formula- and category-obsessed market, are unable to get published. At Panverse it’s story first and foremost. We believe readers are smarter than the publishing world generally gives them credit for, and that they read across categories and enjoy work that doesn’t conform.

Our books are beautiful. One of my core values is that a book–whether print or electronic–should not only contain good writing but also be a thing of beauty, meticulously crafted and attractively packaged. Panverse goes out of its way to find the best artists and the most striking cover art.

As of now, Panverse Publishing has four titles scheduled for 2013, and we will be announcing plans to open to novel submissions in the near future.

I’m in the process of entirely rebuilding the Panverse website. Once the new website is up, I’ll be posting details and teaser excerpts of upcoming titles, as well as author guidelines for submissions, along with royalty and contract terms and all the other good stuff. There will also be a Panverse Reader Club for those among our readers aspiring to become repeat offenders (think: discounts, prize draws, and much more).

Most of all, I intend to continue with Panverse’s original promise and mandate to put STORY front and center. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s a boring book, and we have no intention of inflicting them on our readers! Panverse’s motto is, and always will be,

STORY. WONDER. THEY’RE BACK.

‘Like’ us on Facebook

Visit Panverse on the web

Want to be on the Panverse mailing list? No spam, ever, and absolute privacy: all you will receive are emails when new titles are released and notification of our (quarterly or so) contests and prize draws. Just drop me an email at office dot panpubs at gmail dot com, and you’ll be kept in the loop. You can of course opt out at any time.


That’s all, folks! Thank you and Happy Holidays, and I wish you every success and happiness for 2013 and beyond.

Dario

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Negativity and Truth

The brilliant and multiple award-winning editor Gardner Dozois once advised a group of aspiring writers including myself to “pay no attention to reviews,” and added that “the first thing a writer needs to do is develop a thick skin.” Now, ten years later, with a moderately successful book (Aegean Dream) under my belt and another one nearing publication, I see just how right he was.

A couple of days ago, googling myself and my book as I periodically do to see if there are any new reviews out, I stumbled on a thread in a forum for expats living in Greece. Curious, I had a look.

The thread began well enough, with the first poster plugging Aegean Dream, saying it was both a good read and should be required reading for those planning to uproot and move to another country. A few posts on, though, another poster, who was currently reading my book, had a harsher take, complaining that my naïveté in moving to Greece on the basis of what he considered minimal research was “grating” on him.

I’d come across a similar opinion—only much less tactfully phrased—some months ago on another expat forum, and for a moment, it stung. I considered a reply, then immediately set that idea aside. The thing is, that once you publish, or offer up any work, artistic or otherwise, for public consumption, you expose yourself. People have opinions. They have axes to grind and—like you—insecurities of their own; sometimes they’re right, and other times  not. In these particular instances, I told myself that (i) it’s always easy to second-guess others, and (ii) I actually agree with the poster, and address his very point openly about halfway through the book

Now, Aegean Dream is a nonfiction work. And—because of the still-present stigma concerning self-publication (I’m technically more ‘Indie’ published, since Panverse, though I own it, had published several volumes by others)—hasn’t had the benefit of a single traditional review despite the fact that it’s already outsold several Booker prize winners. All the reviews I’ve received are on Amazon, Goodreads and a few expat websites, and all are generally good, but not a single pro reviewer has touched it.

But if you’ve written fiction, and/or been traditionally published (as some of my own short stories have), you’re more likely to find yourself traditionally reviewed—and those reviews can be very tough, and will hit home. If you’re already insecure about your writing, you may want to avoid reading reviews altogether, or have someone you trust just pick out the good ones for you. If your skin is a bit thicker, you’ll probably decide that in the end these are just opinions and no more. A copy of that wonderful little volume, Pushcart’s Rotten Reviews and Rejections, can go a very long way to soothing a bruised ego at these times. And, of course, there’s always drink!

Once you’ve licked your wounds and run out of good Anglo-Saxon words to describe your detractors, the professional—and I’m assuming professionalism is what we’re striving for—response is to get on with the next book or story as if none of this had happened.

For me, the only thing that matters is truth. Your truth is the way you see life, your characters, the human condition, and all that matters is getting that on the page. You can’t control what people think or say, and that really needs to be secondary. Making money needs to be secondary. Your business—my business—is to tell the story without timidity or coyness. Timidity never won awards, nor did bland reviews. Some of the most successful works in the canon have been the most controversial and received as much vitriol as they have honey.

My own upcoming novel, Sutherland’s Rules, is one I expect to take a fair bit of flak for, though I hope that an equal or greater number of readers and reviewers will enjoy it. A thriller touching on issues including old age, sex, drugs, freedom, terrorism, and our modern surveillance society, it’s bound to hit some nerves. Should I care? No. I’m writing what I want to write about. I believe I’m writing truth, writing the world and my characters as they are and as it is. I told the truth from start to finish in Aegean Dream, and that truth included being entirely honest (which many reviewers have favourably commented on) about my own failings as well as detailing the appalling, toxic corruption that we encountered among Greek lawyers, bureaucrats, and even police in our attempt to settle in that country. I believe the main reason that Aegean Dream has been, and continues to be, successful is precisely because of that truth.

Negativity also comes at you from people, including friends and family, who don’t believe writing is a real job—and it may well not be for everyone: many will fail, just as they do at acting, accountancy, and the bar. I think the best way to deal with this sort of negativity is to allow it to temper and toughen you to deal with the reviews and criticism you’ll face when you’re published.

So work on that thick skin. If you must read reviews, make sure you have the strength and resilience to shrug them off and not let them sting for more than an instant. Write what you want to, not what you think the market, or your agent, or your publisher wants. In many cases, those things may well align anyway, so no worries—everybody wins. But if your primary concerns are people’s good opinions and making money, well, you’re probably in the wrong business.

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Perfect and Good Enough

My mother used to often quote a saying that was drummed into her (those were the days!) at school:

Good, better best;

May you never rest

Until your good is better,

And your better best.

Well.

It’s hard not to see the good in this mantra. And as a driven perfectionist for most of my life, I’m pretty much on board. But the very phrasing of the statement also carries the strong echo of a traditional curse, and advice like this should probably come with a caution, such as author CJ Cherryh’s dictum that, “no rule should be followed off a cliff.”

Before I embarked on my prior career as a decorative artist—sometime before the Elves left Middle-Earth—I used to be a regular housepainter. Because of my own perfectionist tendencies, I quickly gravitated to the high end of the market, which both suited my nature and brought me a better clientele (and income). But whenever I was asked to work in a more bohemian or rustic home, or a friend’s house, I ran into difficulties. I didn’t know how to back off on the perfectionism, where to stop. It hadn’t taken me very long to learn how to do a perfect painting job, but it took me several years longer to recognize the distinction between Perfect and Good Enough.

When you have the aptitude, knowledge, craft, and, above all, patience to do first-rate work, you fall into a trap of sorts. Because not everyone lives in a mansion, and not every job needs to be perfect—it needs to be appropriate. If you detail the hell out of an old car, every ding and imperfection will jump out; likewise, most ER visitors don’t need MRIs and genetic sequencing, they need antibiotics and stitches and plaster casts. More often than not, Good Enough or Appropriate trumps Perfect.

Now, we shouldn’t take this as an excuse for poor work and cutting corners. The guiding principle is what’s appropriate, bringing to bear precisely the right technology and use of resources to get the job done. Overshooting the mark might please your ego, but that’s about as far as it goes.

I believe this is also the case with writing. As I read more writing blogs stuffed with yet more rules and dogma and telling us to obsess over perfection, I also note the beginnings of a reaction, as some of the smarter bloggers caution against blind adherence to The Rules, against over-revising to the point where our work loses energy, and (most importantly) about valuing technique over storytelling.

I’ve ranted elsewhere on this blog about the tendency in this very tough publishing climate for writers to get so wrapped around the axle over the conventional wisdom—diagram-perfect, braided plot arcs; textbook character change; scenes rigidly structured by formula; ruthless elimination of adverbs; the premeditated targeting of fiction to a particular genre or market demographic; and much more. I think there’s a place for all that, and I know writers who, God help them, do it all. And though I don’t have nearly the craft others do, I’m capable of some fine prose styling, always have been. But for years I mistook perfectly-turned prose for good writing, and it isn’t. Nor, I believe, is it generally appropriate. Good writing mostly consists of making people care about your characters and taking them on a ride that they’ll enjoy and feel better for having taken.

I don’t believe every book should have the same structure as every other book in its genre or category. I’m not interested in writing Richard III or being a Shakespeare. I am interested in improving my craft at every level. But as someone self-taught in my previous career as a decorative painter, I’ve learned that adherence to rules and conventional wisdom, although a good basic principle, leads inevitably to either cookie-cutter imitation work or perfected coldness when taken too far. Technical perfection, though it has its place, is ultimately of less value than originality and heart.

Of course, we have to ask ourselves what kind of writers we want to be. I say, advance on all fronts. I believe we develop our skills best by writing, not by obsessing. Keep the focus on the story and the characters.  A lot of tools—classic scene structure, textbook plot and character arcs, and so on—are in my opinion much more valuable as occasional diagnostic instruments than as rigid frameworks essential to our story. Adverbs, like any other part of the language, are a tool.

So learn the rules first; and once you do, question everything.  If you simply  use the right tools and deploy the appropriate level of craft to get the job done, all will be well.

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