Dear Indies: Stop Jumping The Gun

Dear Novelist,

Not all indie books are created equal.

Or rather, not all published indie books are equal.

Every writer knows (or should know) the first draft isn’t good. It’s raw, rough, chaotic (even if you plotted out every scene). Further drafts and edits are required to cut off the excess and polish that sucker into a diamond worthy of a dragon’s hoard.

The long-standing issue in the indie (or independent) publishing world, whether an author uses a small indie press or self-publishes, is the quality of the content. Indie books have a bad rap in a large portion of the literary world. That reputation is shrinking, but not fast enough, and as indie authors it’s our fault if people don’t take us seriously.

Confession: As someone who spent over fifteen years attempting to break into the traditional paths of publishing, I long held scorn toward any indie route. Not because I felt I was a better writer, but because I knew if I could land myself an agent I’d have a team who could help me polish up my baby after all I could do on my own.

But traditional publishing isn’t possible for everyone, nor is it right for everyone. Creative control and steering clear of rigid formulae have lured many indies away from the trad option–and for good reason! It’s tough but rewarding to strike out and try something new and brave. Heck, a lot of the great authors of classic lit were self-published. It’s an awesome, independent approach and very respectable.

I didn’t always think so. But I do now.

But that looming problem persists. Not all indie books stand up under consumer scrutiny and that needs to change.

The issue stems from our inability as authors to step far enough back to analyze and alter our manuscripts enough to tighten it into something truly remarkable. Some of it is fear of taking the very heart out of a thing by cutting too much away. Some of it is the fear of using those dreaded, overdone tropes. And some of it is sheer arrogance.

“I’ve written a 120k epic fantasy novel! I know what I’m doing.”

Yeah, maybe. But probably not. Not right away and not after only one draft.

A few months ago, I reviewed an ARC for a fellow indie author who shall remain nameless. She had a fascinating idea, a fresh take on the fantasy genre, and I was very excited to give it a read. Now, this author has a gift. Her prose can be sweeping and beautiful, and her world-building was very well conceived. But the execution wasn’t up to snuff. I wanted to love that book, oh how I wanted to, but she’d stopped two edits too soon. Hadn’t tightened and stripped and pounded that beauty into something divine. It was soooo close. But she’d probably been poking and prodding the thing too long to see any more of the flaws. To realize it was so near completion she just needed a tad more spit for that shining.

I gave her three stars. I liked it. I just didn’t LOVE it.

More recently, I accepted another fantasy ARC. This one… Well, it didn’t rate more than two stars. The author has a great grasp of world-building and well conceived characters in what is obviously a painstakingly plotted narrative spanning three books. But it was a mess. The character arcs were underwhelming, the villain was flat and non-threatening, making the stakes virtually non-existent. I could go on and on. While I evaluated how this book had gone so wrong, I realized the author should’ve used this first book in his trilogy as backstory for his reference, and started the actual narrative with book two. Yes, the ending of his first book is where things really get interesting.

We authors, indie and trad alike, are married to our plots. We love them. Adore them. Bleed over them. And have a tendency to believe everyone else will see it the same way we do. We HAVE to include the backstory. We need our audience to watch the same progression we do. But that’s not always true. As a reader, I’m not already in love with your book cast. I need incentive to stay in the book long enough to fall in love with one, two, three, maybe nine of your characters. But I also need stakes. Tension. Conflict. Not info-dumping, flat villains, and the logistics of your money system. Those things need to be fleshed out and blended in seamlessly, so I take for granted that your world is well constructed. Don’t tell me. SHOW ME. Don’t show OFF; use subtlety! Treat me like I’m intelligent enough to pick up on cues as the characters take action.

But that’s a post for another day.

My overall point is to beg my fellow indie authors not to jump the gun.

Believe me, I’ve done it too. If anyone curious enough wants to compare my Paradise series to my Wintervale duology, they’ll see a huge contrast in writing, pacing, character arcs, and so on. There’s a simple reason for that. I wrote Paradise between 2007-2009. It’s the second project I completed after my very first novel. And it definitely has flaws.

By comparison, Wintervale was written in 2015, and came at the tail end of my million-word goal. That project flipped a switch inside me. The words came differently. I’m not saying it’s perfect (no book is, let’s be honest), but I started to understand things about writing, about pacing, about stakes and arcs. And even then, it took edits and more edits to pound it into something shiny. And then it had to stand up under peer review.

Oh man, was that tough. I received some of the hardest, meanest critiques of my life. Some readers meant well. Others didn’t. But it toughened me up enough to glean through the feedback and discern the helpful from the hurtful, tauten my prose, and take criticism. (That last still isn’t easy, but I do the best I can because my manuscripts are worth it.)

We have to learn to be patient. To accept that we can’t always see the forest for the trees.

We’ve got to stop throwing our books out into the world two or three drafts too soon. We need to listen to unbiased perspectives and contemplate if we’re cutting corners and adding to the bad rap of indie books.

Don’t get me wrong. Along with the subpar, I’ve read some fantastic, unique, beautifully written indie books. Indie publishing is a marvelous and necessary option to bring to the world new ideas and visions that the Big 5 (or 4 now) publishing houses can’t absorb for various reasons. They can’t take the same risks we can independently. Beautiful, fresh stories are entering the indie scene every day. But that’s why it’s more important than ever to tighten up our writing and release quality.

I’ve written 17 unique novels. I could rapidly release them at any time–but I’m not going to do that. I already released Paradise when, by my own standards of quality, I shouldn’t have. It doesn’t hold up very well. But I did, and I learned from it, and did what I could to clean it up and re-release it. (I love that series; it taught me so much. But it’s not great and I know it.) My goal is to release my books when (and only when) they glow.

Many of my unpublished works are in their earliest drafts. Now I’m rewriting them from scratch, taking what I’ve learned in a process spanning years, to craft something new, deeper, better than my earliest concepts. Now, this is just me, and I’m a slow learner. It’s taken years for me to find my voice, and I’ll never be as good as I want to be–because growth doesn’t end. My point is, some writers have a more natural gift than I do. Some can accomplish in their debut novel what I’ve taken years to hone.

Wherever you stand on that scale, push yourself a little more. Find that unbiased voice to let you know whether or not your book is ready for the world, or if it needs two or three more edits.

Let the metamorphosis occur.

You’ll have fewer regrets, and so will your readers.

Let’s improve the world’s opinion of indie books one diamond-quality book at a time!

Sincerely,

A Fellow Indie Author

Dear Indies: Stop Jumping The Gun

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