Steps to self-publishing, Part 1: Should you self-publish?

So here’s the thing. This is not going to be a damning indictment of traditional publishing, nor will it be an ad for why self-publishing is the only option. Self-publishing is more simple than that: It’s nothing more and nothing less than a means to an end. A tool in your writerly grab-bag. A way to tell your stories in a way that will be heard. The literary equivalent of putting your short movie on Vimeo, or your web series on YouTube, or your album on SoundCloud. As an approach, self-publishing has pros and cons, and we’re going to take a deeper dive into what they are. You might find that you want to try it; you might be like, uh, no.

It’s all good.

But this is the first step — deciding if this is the approach for you.

If you’re writing, or have written your story, you need to know several things. Firstly, what the hell is that thing? Is it a short story, a novella, a long short story, a novel, a mighty word-beast of several hundred thousand words? The reason we’re asking is that if you’re thinking of going the traditional publishing route (you get an agent, the agent gets you a publisher), you need to know exactly what you have, and what part of the bookstore it would be shelved in. You also need to make sure that your work meets the current accepted word length for whatever it is, e.g., YA novels are usually in the ballpark of 70k-80k, literary novels around 80k-90k, and fantasy novels more like 100k-12ok (on account of all that awesome world-building). These are just broad outlines, and they tend to change over time (only a few years ago YA novels used to be closer to 30k than 80k), but literary agents often won’t consider a novel if it’s too far away from the appropriate total. If you want to go the traditional route, your book must fit the traditional categories with all their requirements. Which is cool. You just need to know that as you’re writing and editing. If your book does match up with the traditional requirements, that’s great!

But…

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That doesn’t mean that you have to go traditional. It’s a necessary requirement if you do, but doesn’t force your hand. Traditional publishing has many advantages—marketing, distribution—but some disadvantages too, e.g. everything happens extremely slowly (it may take upwards of a year to find an agent, the same to get a publishing deal, and your publication date will likely be 18 months to 2 years after that), and, the kicker, it’s pretty challenging to get through the slush pile. Think of it from the agents’ perspective. Every single day opening their inbox to look at queries feels like this:

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How are they supposed to really know which of all those super brief blurbs will turn out to be mighty-mega-bestsellers? It’s hard being an agent. If an agent gets thousands of queries a year (and most of them do), your chances of standing out from two paragraphs in a query letter are very slim. Not impossible, but on average, an agent may take on only a handful of new clients each year. That’s single digits, out of thousands.

But that could be you. And you should damn well believe that it will be you. you’re awesome!

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None of this is to discourage you; it’s just to let you know what you’re up against, and what you’ll need to be ready for. Still up for it? That’s fantastic! Write yourself a knock-out query (there are plenty of reputable sites and services offering query critiques, and Writers Digest has a great series analyzing successful query letters)[link], select your list of literary agents (making sure they handle the type of book you’re submitting), and get at it!

If that’s not for you for whatever reason (your book is unconventional, you don’t want to wait that long, you just HAVE TO GET THIS STORY OUT THERE RIGHT NOW DAMNIT), or you’ve been down that road and have amassed a collection of rejections and want to try something else, then self-publishing might be worth a shot.

Making that decision carefully and thoughtfully is step 1.

We’ll take you through the next steps in part 2!

 

 

 

Editing: Beta Readers

Finally, the words you’ve been waiting for: Your draft is done!

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You finally get to take a break. So power down your computer and relax… while you hand your manuscript over to… someone else.

Okay, so maybe relax is the wrong word. CRINGE might be more accurate. PANIC, definitely. SKIN-CRAWLING FEAR, possibly.

We’ve said before that writing can be an isolating experience. It’s just you, your computer, the wild and crazy thoughts in your head, and that beautiful bowl of peanut M&Ms (replace with the snack of your choice). It’s no wonder that bringing someone else into the mix feels so disconcerting. You might feel that what you wrote was awesome, just the way it is.

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But once your draft is polished, the next step is sending it out into a little corner of the world for feedback. It’s gotta go.

But what that corner looks like is totally up to you. Do you have a group of trusted friends that you could ask to give your work a read through? Are you a part of, or could you join, a local writing group? Are you lucky enough to have a mentor?

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We all need a Yoda to give our work the Jedi side-eye

It’s important that you can trust whomever you ask to give honest feedback. If your mom is the type to praise your achievement at finally completing something and will focus on the quality of the paper your story is printed on, she’s not the right person to ask. Nor do you want to give your work to a friend who prides themselves on getting through school without ever opening a book.

You need a reader who, you know, reads. And can be critical.

If you don’t have anyone that fits that description, don’t worry, there are loads of professional editors out there that will be willing to go over your manuscript… for a fee. Finding that editor is kind of like online dating. You need to check their profile and their background, make sure they’re legit, see what they’re into, and then ask if they would be interested. Hiring an editor who works mainly on historical YA fiction may not be a good fit for your sci-fi opus. There are a lot of groups online that have several editors “on staff” and once you describe your work, and what kind of feedback you’re looking for, will hook you up better than match.com.

Once your manuscript is in someone else’s hands, do your best to distract yourself. Rewatch of Gilmore Girls anyone? Whenever that annoying box pops up to confirm that you are still watching, take a moment and start to mentally prepare yourself for when your beta reader gets back to you. Because it’s gonna hurt. It doesn’t matter if only one tiny error is found, it’s still going to sting. Spoiler: There’s going to be more than one.

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But remind yourself that the good news is, you can fix it.

You can fix anything.

That’s what the next draft (which might be the 4th, or 9th, or 16th, whatever it takes) is all about; fixing what you couldn’t see because you were too close to it. When the feedback is ready make sure to take notes, ask questions, and before walking away, have a clear understanding of exactly what your beta reader is telling you. Even if you disagree, be clear on what they feel didn’t work. Then take those notes and put them away for a day.

Chances are you’ll be a mixture of desperately wanting to jump right in and fix any blemish, and furious that it was there in the first place. But give yourself time to adjust to the feedback. It’ll feel overwhelming, but once you start to tackle one issue after another you’ll see the full solution. As we mentioned before, sometimes those solutions were already there in the first draft and need to be added back in.

Come up with a game plan before you turn your computer back on. This way you’re not going over and over the same sections. At times it will go smoother than you think, other times it will drag. But you’ll get there. Every problem is solvable and when you’re done, you’ll have a completed manuscript!

Editing: Structure

So you’ve gone through and tightened your plot, strengthened your characters, confirmed that the dialogue is realistic, and shaped your world until it was so tangible you forgot you didn’t live there. Congratulations! You have a solid second draft! Feels good, doesn’t it?

Charlie dancing

Now it’s time… to create the (drum roll) THIRD DRAFT. We know what you’re thinking: wait, shouldn’t I be taking a break? Reconnecting with Netflix and friends? Or just Netflix?

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Sorry, but no. You’re on a roll and you need to keep rolling.

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Editing requires discipline and momentum. Whether you’re working on it eight hours a day every day, or during your forty-five minute lunch break Monday through Friday, or grabbing 20 minutes before your commute every day, you’re doing some serious work. Don’t stop now.

Serendipitously, your third draft will be all about momentum. Does your story have it? Is there a pace and/or structure that’s keeping the reader turning the page?

This is where you have to make some hard decisions about the structure of your story. Are you going to follow the classic formats (three act structure, eight point arc, etc.) or follow your own?  Are you going to have a change in narration or setting with each chapter/break? Are you going to have one chapter flow into the next, or end each break on a cliffhanger, so when your reader says they’re just going to read one more chapter before bed, they wind up finishing the book at three in the morning — loving and kind of hating you when their alarm goes off the next morning?

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While it’s tempting to fall back on classic structures and forcing your story into a mold, we recommend reading through what you have so far first. Chances are you’ll see some kind of structure already peeking through. It may be close to a classic format or it might be something completely new. Do what feels right for the story. The key is that it’s consistent throughout. Once you decide on your structure, make sure the work follows the shape from beginning to end. You shouldn’t ask your readers to fight to stay in your story — especially at three in the morning.

Once your story has a firm shape, like everything in life, it’s all about the details. You’ll need to go into every arc, scene, act and/or chapter and make sure they each achieve something that furthers the plot — whether it establishes an aspect of the setting, a facet of your character(s) or moves the action forward. Break down your story into smaller stories and make sure that they are essential.

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If they aren’t essential, you have to either give them more depth, or cut them loose.

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Just remember, if you really love a scene and desperately want to keep it, chances are it’s trying to say something but isn’t quiet there yet. Work on it, find its meaning and let it shine through.

Your number one task is to be brutally honest with yourself, though; if you can’t make it work, no matter how much you love it and how good it is on its own, it will only hurt the whole piece. Chocolate is amazing, but not on a steak. So if a scene doesn’t fit, even if the writing is impeccable, cut it. But paste it to a new document.

Who knows, it could be the pivotal ingredient to the second course/sequel!*

 

*Finish what you’re working on now first though!

 

 

 

 

Editing:World-building

We’re all familiar with world-building in sci-fi and fantasy. The religions, politics, powers, and ancient mythology (and, yes, even the trade laws) that exist in Star Wars, Star Trek, the MCU, and the Potter-verse. But world-building isn’t just for magical characters wielding all-powerful technology.

Loki

Magical character? Check. Wielding all-powerful technology? Check. 

No matter the genre, the world in which your story takes place is more than just a backdrop to invoke a location (like a white sheet behind a stage to show an empty sky). Your setting is literally and figuratively your characters’ world. It has/will shape them, and possibly crush or inspire them.

The first step to building your world (and ensuring it’s presented in just the right way when you’re editing) is to decide how much influence you want the setting to have. Will it enrich each scene in subtle, nuanced ways (like the music subculture in Begin Again), or will your world be so vivid that it’s almost a character unto itself (like The Matrix)? Either way, just like your characters, you need to know the ins and outs of where your story unfolds. What’s its history? Its defining features? How does the air smell (if it even has air)? How does the water taste (if there’s even any water)? What does it sound like at night? Is it any different at dawn from how it is at dusk?

This also extends to culture and society: you need to know the mechanics of how your invented society functions, and how your characters work those mechanics. Mad Max: Fury Road has a fully complete society and eco-system: it’s grounded in details. Utterly insane details, to  be sure, but it’s 100% consistent and feels real.

Doof Warrior

World-building, son. This photo never gets old. Ever. 

If you’re so inclined, draw your world, as much as you can. If not, look for pictures, photos, paintings, etc. that both look like your world, and conjure the feelings you want your world to provoke in your characters, and in your readers. Having a visual reference can be a huge help in creating your atmosphere. If there’s a part of the world that has similar geography, go visit it and soak it in. Basically, do what you need to in order to live there in your head. Then attack your draft and make sure that feeling you have when you’re living in your world is conveyed between the action and dialogue lines, and in and between each line of your prose. Make sure every action follows the law of your world: readers and viewers have an unerring instinct for inconsistency, even if it’s felt more than thought, it will turn them away from your work. For example: if there is no air, there is no rust.

Grab your nearest copy of Harry Potter (everyone has a set of Harry Potter books in each room, right? That just us?), open it up, and see how long it takes you to figure out where Harry, Hermione and Ron are. We’re betting that in a few lines you can tell what room in Hogwarts they’re in, or which shop in Diagon Alley. (Just for the record, J.K. Rowling is a master world-builder, on every possible level — if you want to see how it’s done, read the Harry Potter books, and for a more gritty, contemporary kind of world, her Cormoran Strike crime novels, written under the pen name of Robert Galbraith).

HP books

Can never have too many of these, Harry

It’s all in the details, the feelings that bring you… well… home.

When you’re editing your story, be it script or prose, it’s important to shape your world to feel like a home. It’s your home as the creator, your characters’ home because they exist in it, and your readers’ as they escape to it.

Editing: Character

All you have to do is take a quick look at any Tumblr account and you’ll see how influential a character can be. Characters become your friends, your mentors, your inspiration for trying something you never thought of before. They can feel closer to you, at times, than your own family.

Doctor Who Tumblr

As a writer, you never know which of your creations will click with your readers. All you can do is give each character a whole life. Even if the plot doesn’t allow for you to divulge all the details, you need to know them. It’s that in-depth understanding that will come across in every move your character makes, every line of dialogue, and how they influence the plot.

So, go through your first draft and list out your characters—describe what they look like, know the key events in their past, work out who their family and friends are, even their health. What secrets are they hiding? What do they desperately want? What scares them? And, most importantly, how did they get to be in this story? Once you have those answers, you have the beginning’s of your story’s canon. And the more familiar you are with your canon—the stronger your grasp on your characters and their world—the better your story will be.

Now go through your draft again and make sure your characters’ words and actions reflect who they are.

Giving your characters those dimensions will prevent them from being flat, a cardboard cutout that you’re moving around to make your plot work out—someone the audience will forget. Think of your last plane, train or bus trip. When was the last time you saw someone generic, that didn’t have something interesting about them? It rarely happens. Everyone always has a little something of their personality peeking through. The woman in a business suit carrying a Hello Kitty lunchbox… or the little boy in a school uniform and faded, oversized army jacket. Everyone has something different and unique about them; so should your characters. Make them shine with individuality. Make them as real as the people you travel to work and/or school with. You can do this with dialogue that reflects their quick thinking and their worldview, the way they dress, the choices they make, etc.

A quick, and possibly slightly controversial, note about your main character: While it’s okay to have them exist in a story that they simply witness and report on… let’s be honest, the best stories have a protagonist that influences events, that drives the plot, even if it’s just some of the time. It’s even better if all of your characters impact the direction of the story.

Which brings us to Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s a great movie. A perfect movie. But, as Amy in The Big Bang Theory pointed out, Indiana Jones doesn’t seem to influence any of the events as they unfold. The story, as she describes it, would pretty much have been the same had Indy not been there. Now, this has been proven to not be the case—there are multiple ways that Indy influences what happens, but the point is that you don’t want the fans of your story to feel like Sheldon while he’s listening to Amy deconstruct one of his favorite movies.

BBT Raiders

It’s not true about Raiders; don’t let it be true about your story.

Give your characters responsibility and agency, a past, insecurities and hope. Give them life.

In turn, they’ll give your story a life of its own.

 

Editing: Plot

OK. Let’s recap. You wrote the first draft. You’ve given yourself a break and you’re ready to look at your work with fresh eyes. That original first draft is saved, hopefully in a few locations… you know, just in cases.

Jamie

Now it’s time to go through it and make sure you have the all-important plot.

Because the plot is your purpose for telling the story; it’s the glue that holds your masterpiece together.

Stories come to us in fits and bursts. Sometimes they flow, and other times they trickle, and often, the story you thought you were telling when you first started typing is a completely different tale by the time you’re done. Which means you have to go back and make sure that everything is cohesive.

Basically, you don’t want your work to be Rachel’s Thanksgiving dessert from Friends. Ground beef is fine, but not in a fruity dessert. Make sure you all your ingredients make either Shepherd’s Pie or an English Trifle, not some unpalatable combination of the two. (Genre-mashing can be great, but it has to be done smoothly!)

Rachel Trifle

English foods aside, you don’t want contradictions in your plot. With your characters, it can be a good thing, even a grounding thing, as long as you give solid character-based reasons for it, but with plot it can weaken your tale. This means cutting the “ground beef” out. The old kill your darlings quote applies here. You might have a great scene or awesome character, but if it undermines your plot it’ll have to be saved for another story — the one about Shepherd’s Pie, perhaps?

Everything must serve the plot. And if you’ve done your job well, plot and character will overlap majorly. Even in a case-of-the-week TV show, the cases tie back to the main characters’ season/series arcs in some way. In the CW’s Supernatural, for example, at the exact moment Sam Winchester is facing the possibility of having to sacrifice his brother Dean for the greater good, the brothers meet a girl with a werewolf sister who is out of control.

Supernatural Werewolf

If she can’t tame her sister, she’ll have to make the ultimate sacrifice and take her out. The episode is a tight standalone story, but it holds up a mirror to the brothers’ relationship and hints at what might be coming for them.

SPN werewolf Sam and Dean

Awesome costume design detail: Sam and Dean are even wearing the same color scheme as the sisters, to help emphasize the mirroring

And remember, your plot manipulations and machinations and mechanics—and other things beginning with “m”—shouldn’t be obvious. There shouldn’t be billboards advertising “foreshadowing”… it should be subtle AND entertaining. Some of the best stories, the ones that stay with us, only reveal how it’s glued together much later in the story. (The gold standard of awesome plotting is still Die Hard, btw. Just saying).

So in this first pass of editing, focus on removing what doesn’t work. e.g. scenes that don’t further the plot or the character, or slow things down, or take your story off track in some way (no matter how much you love it), add in what’s needed to keep the plot together, and finesse each point so that the reader can’t see the working mechanics of it all. You can do this by making key plot moments funny, or action-oriented, or a major character moment… or distract the reader with flying monkeys… you’re basically being a magician and using sleight of hand, making the reader/audience see one thing, when you’re really doing something else.

Flying Monkeys

For example, in the opening minutes of Die Hard, John McClane’s seatmate on the plane tells McClane that when he gets to his hotel, he needs to take off his shoes and socks and “make fists with his toes” to relax. McClane thinks this is crazy, but when he gets to Nakatomi Plaza, he does it, and it works. You think that’s the payoff… but that’s the moment when Hans Gruber shows up, forcing McClane to spend the rest of the movie barefoot (and to run over broken glass at one point). That throwaway comment was a setup to help make things very difficult for the hero later on — something all plots need to do!

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It’s a setup for a plot point that’s also a character beat… and it happens so quickly and entertainingly you don’t notice it’s either! That’s how it’s done folks

It’s true that characters can change us and scenes can stay with us, but a good, tight plot is what makes us fall in love with everything in the story. No matter what type of story you’re telling, there should always be a bit of romance between the story and the reader. The plot is how you woo them to fall in love with your work.

 

 

Editing

We’ve spoken a lot about that first draft. It’s the place where you let loose, write anything and everything that comes to mind. It’s the time to riff like you’re in minute 5 of a guitar solo and you just don’t want to stop. It’s the improv phase. Even if you had an outline.

So we’re going to assume you had a blast, and now you have a first draft on your screen. A big, beautiful, messy, crazy first draft.

matt damon not happy martian

You, staring at that first draft like…

What now?

Now, you get ready to edit.

When editing, you’ll focus on a myriad of things: plot, character, world-building, scenes, beats, every line of dialogue… every line… every word…. We’ll look at these in more detail in future posts, but right now, we recommend doing what will feel so unnatural to you: set that first draft aside for a while.

Not for too long — you don’t want to lose your momentum — but you need to give yourself time to recharge, refresh, and, most importantly, readjust your thinking. This time away can be whatever you need: finishing an episode, or season, or — let’s be honest — a series, on Netflix, having a get-together with all those friends you’ve been neglecting since you were captured by your muse, or just a long walk to see what the world outside of the one you just created looks like.

It’s also not a bad idea to take this time to clear your schedule. If your first draft is a 50 yard dash, editing is the 26.2 mile marathon and you’re going to need to set aside time to keep up a good pace.

The first draft was the raw material. Editing is engineering, where you hone and craft and rebuild and shore up and make sure your story has narrative load bearing walls… ok, enough construction metaphors, but you do have to think that way a little bit.

Now you have to roll up your sleeves, and  get ready to make thousands of changes.

Oh yes. Remember when in The Martian, Matt Damon is facing a terrifying, unwieldy, seemingly impossible situation, and his response was how he was gonna science the shit out of it? That’s you, right now.

matt damon martian happy

You, solving a narrative problem while editing. Promise.

You kind of want to go back to Netflix right now, don’t you? Resist the urge! You can celebrate with Orange Is The New Black (or your fifteenth Gilmore Girls rewatch) when you finish your second draft.

For now, trust that you work has genius. It’s there, glorious and beautiful — you just have to bring it to light. Put on your shades, because now it’s time to get to work…

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First drafts

You came up with a great idea.  A killer idea! You made some notes in your phone, or your current favorite writing notebook, on post-its, old envelopes, or even on your laptop. You pictured scenes while listening to awesome songs.You can imagine the movie version so clearly! (that guy from Teen Wolf would crush the lead role, right?)

Tyler Teen Wolf

That one

There’s just one teeny, tiny technicality: you have to actually write the damn thing.

Which is where the beautiful, messy pain of first drafts comes in.

Whether you’ve put together an outline, like we talked about before (which makes the draft your second step), or whether you’re an organic-style improviser and this is your first time putting words on a page for your story, you still need to get your raw material together. Outline or not, roadmap or not, you still need to start this journey and tackle a first draft.

And oh, that first draft is a complex beast for us writers. On the one hand, it’s truly amazing: you can write ANYTHING YOU WANT. You’re free flowing, improvising, letting those gorgeous ideas flow right from the muse and onto your page. You can write [make this better] and [funny line here] and [science this later], and that’s okay! You can write alternate versions of the same scene, or of the same line of dialogue. You can write out of sequence. You can write whatever you want. 

 

Doctor Who guitar

This is what first drafts feel like. Cool.

The key thing is, you’re WRITING. You’re getting your story down. Even more than that, you’re putting the heart and soul of your story on the page (the body and brain of it will show up later… right now you’re dealing with the essence of your story).

This is where we turn to that pesky other hand.

It’s probably not very good.

There. We said it. #SorryNotSorry

Your dialogue probably won’t be diamond-sharp or leaping off the page with fresh, vivid originality. Your scenes likely won’t start or end the way you want them to. Your characters might not do the things you need them to do. There will be lots of those comments like [make this better]. Everything will be really, really messy. Mind-bogglingly messy. At the exact midpoint of cleaning out your closets messy, when apparently everything you own is scattered all around you and NOTHING MAKES SENSE ANYMORE. It’s like you’re building a house, and this is the stage where it looks like you’re actually destroying one instead. Basically, it will feel like you  have no idea what you’re doing.

But here’s the thing. It’s all okay. Why, you ask? How could all that possibly be okay?!

Because that first draft is actually PERFECT.

Wait, what?

Yep. It’s perfect, because it contains everything you need to make a wonderful, amazing story. All your jumping off points are there. Your characters are there. The things they need to say are there, in one form or another. And, most importantly, the solutions to pretty much all your narrative problems are going to be there too. You just might not realize it. This is why it’s so important to NEVER EVER EVER CENSOR yourself when writing a first draft. LIKE, EVER. If it comes into your mind, put it on the page.

Everything you write is a clue or a seed or a possibility. You might find, when you’re editing your big finale, that you need a thing, or a character, or a piece of information. The great news is, whatever that thing is that you need, it’s probably lurking somewhere earlier in that first draft. Because first drafts are perfect, gorgeous things.

No story can exist without a first draft. Having an ungainly, unwieldy mess of a document is an incredible thing, because it means your story is now on the road. It didn’t even have wheels before and now it’s rolling down the writing highway. It still needs a few other things (by few we mean like, thousands), but it’s on the move, and you can see that signpost up ahead that says Editsville is the next stop). As Shannon Hale said, writing a first draft is like shoveling sand into a box so that you can build castles later. You can’t build a sandcastle without the sand, people. The first draft gives you all the raw material you need. And it’s exhilarating.

But trust us… it’s not as exhilarating as the next phase: editing. This is where your story’s soul will be crafted, finessed and sculpted into something cleaner, shinier… gleamier? The soul will not change. You cannot break your story and you cannot break its soul. Editing will take it to a higher plane of existence, man.

Jeff Bridges Tron Legacy

Yeah

But we’ll talk about that next time. For now, luxuriate in knowing that you managed to put an entire version of your story on the page.

You’re amazing!