Traditional publishing is a complex, time-consuming process. For many authors, it takes as long or longer to get a book published than it did to write it. It also employs an army of people; author, agent, editor, publisher, and printer, just to name a few. And every one of those people needs to get paid for their work. An author can wait years to see their book published, and then wait even longer to ever see a cent from all their hard work.
No serious author writes just to make money, but all of us need money to live and to keep writing. That’s why many authors — including myself — are going a different route. In the writing world, we’re called indie authors. We’re the do-it-yourself writers and publishers. The hard part is, we’re taking on all the jobs — author, agent, editor, publisher, and printer — ourselves. That’s a big challenge.
There are tools and services out there that make it easier to publish and distribute our books, but there’s really nothing that can replace the writing and editing. It’s just not enough to have a good story idea. If I can say it without being too rude, writing and editing is what kills most indie authors.
I spent over a decade as a technical writer, and I encountered many technical writers who were part of big teams that included experts in writing, editing, and publishing. Me? I did it all. I wrote, edited, and published every single manual I worked on. That’s part of why I feel comfortable with the idea of doing the same thing for my fiction.
Many writers aren’t editors, and even those who are rarely feel comfortable editing their own work. I don’t blame them. Editing my own writing is extremely hard because I know what I think I wrote — or what I meant to write — and I easily gloss over what I actually wrote. We writers are also human, which means we’re not the best critics of ourselves. It’s easy to be too hard or too soft with our own work. When we do that, we’re doing ourselves a serious disservice.
If you’re hoping I’m going to reveal some secret technique I’ve discovered that makes editing my own writing easy, you’re going to be disappointed. There’s no easy shortcut, just a lot of hard work. I like to think I’m a nice guy, though, so I’m going to share with you a few of the things I do that help:
1) Know what you’re going to write before you write it
I’m not saying that you need to plan out each sentence in your head before you begin typing, but I strongly recommend having a concrete plan for what needs to be included. Whether you’re writing a technical manual or a novel, you need to know the subject matter inside and out.
My outline for Shadow and Light has a short paragraph or two about each chapter. It describes the key events and how they’ll affect the major characters. Each chapter contains two or three scenes, and I have notes about the setting for each scene. I also have a document which contains the name and a brief description of each and every character. As I introduce new ones, I’ll add them to the character list. I have another document that contains a few dozen pages of notes as I’ve planned out the story, from character descriptions to thoughts about the setting of the story.
When I’m writing, I have all these documents open so I can reference them. When I start writing a chapter, I know what I have to accomplish, and I have a good idea of how many words or pages I have to do it in. I’ll usually review my notes, then lean back and close my eyes so I can visualize the scene. I’ll play it out in my mind, and then I’ll start writing.
2) Adapt to changes as they come
I can’t count how many times I’ve had a very clear plan for what I wanted to write, and somewhere along the way I realize there’s a better way to do it. It happens to me in my fiction writing, and it’s happened in my technical writing as well. Sometimes, it’s just a minor change as an idea develops in my mind. I can often adjust by switching up the order of events or key points.
Sometimes, it’s a huge shift that impacts everything. Sometimes, I throw out days or even weeks of work. It’s not the easiest thing to do, but I’ll do it if I know I should. I’m not really throwing out all that work, because it was the process that lead me to the understanding of what really needs to happen. There’s no such thing as wasted effort in writing, even if 90% of what you write is never seen by anyone but yourself.
Enjoy the creation process. Let the story flow and change and evolve as you create it. Your writing and the stories you tell will be better for it.
3) Proof-read as you go
This is my fourth attempt at writing this sentence. I’ll start writing, and if it’s not coming out right, I’ll delete it immediately and start over. My thoughts often evolve as I write, so a new sentence — especially at the beginning of a paragraph — may take five or six tries before I’m willing to accept it.
I’ll also stop at the end of a paragraph and re-read the entire paragraph, right after I’ve written it. I’ll do context editing right away, cleaning up grammar and sentence structure. I don’t move on to the next paragraph until I’m happy with the current one. I’ll even do a line-edit for typos and punctuation.
This kind of writing isn’t great for maximizing my daily word count. I don’t let that bother me. Great writing isn’t measured in the number of words, or how quickly it gets done. I want my writing to be read, and that means I’ve got to put the work into writing it well.
4) Read it out loud
No matter how many times I’ve read something in my head, I hear it differently when I read it out loud. I like to read to my wife, and she’s kind enough to listen. My brother-in-law is another person who tolerates my need to read my writing out loud. Some sentences that sounded fine in my head sound disjointed and confusing when I read them out loud. When that happens, I’ll pause and clean up the grammar or change the sentence so that it makes sense.
I also find a lot of the minor line-editing errors in my out-loud reading. It helps me notice a misspelled word or a misplaced comma. I don’t know why, but it does. I suppose I’m using a different part of my brain when I’m reading out loud.
5) Read it again. And again. And again.
It may seem like I’m laboring the point, but I don’t think I can stress it too much. The more times you read what you write, the more opportunities you have to catch errors or problems in it. Re-read every sentence after you write it. Re-read every paragraph after you’re done with it. Re-read every chapter after you finish it. Re-read it all aloud to a few different people. Read it again.
One of the things I find that helps me see my writing with fresh eyes is to do something else. Watch a TV show, go for a walk, talk to somebody about something other than what I’m writing. When I was doing technical writing, my bosses didn’t really understand why I did that stuff. I had bosses get annoyed when I’d get up from my desk and walk around. They gave me dirty looks when I would chat with my co-workers. They definitely didn’t approve of me watching TV shows or movies.
That’s one of the benefits of working for myself. I don’t have to appease any penny-pinching bureaucrats who don’t understand the writing process. Everything you do, even watching movies and TV shows, is a part of that process. One of the best ways to improve your writing is to spend time doing something else. It gives your brain a chance to ferment ideas, or to shift gears. Then, when you go back to your writing, you’re seeing it with fresh eyes and new ideas.
6) There’s no such thing as writer’s block
We all do it. We’ll stare at the blank screen, and words won’t come. We can’t make an intelligible sentence to save our lives. Some people call that writer’s block. It’s easy to think that you’re out of ideas when you’re having trouble putting words on the page. More often, I’ve found that when I’m having trouble writing, it’s because my brain is too busy with ideas.
For me, the best solution is to lean back, close my eyes, and discover what my brain is doing. Sometimes, I’ll lay down and take a nap, or go for a walk. I’ll let my brain work. It always lets me know when it’s done, and I usually love the new ideas it’s come up with.
Trust your brain. If it won’t let you write, there’s a reason for it. Let it do its job. If you’re really a writer, the story will come.