Sunday, April 3, 2016

Indie authors: We need to take time to write better books

Indie authors: We need to take time to write better books
I've hesitated to write this post even though it's been rolling around in my head for a while now. The hesitation is for a couple of reasons.

First, it's critical. I don't like being critical. It's not my nature to be purely critical. I'm an editor at the day job and have no problem delivering criticism, but I try to be constructive. I want whoever is on the receiving end of it to feel like it's beneficial. I hope that this post will be seen as that, but that's really all in the reader's interpretation. So, that makes me hesitant.

Second, I am going to put a spotlight square on myself and my writing by the end of this. People are going to read what I have to say and then wonder "What makes him think his stuff is so great?" Well, as a preface, I don't think my stuff is so great. A lot of what I'm about to write is directed at me too.

So, with that, let's dive in. Ready?

Indie authors, we are too hung up on the checklist and too many of our books just aren't very good.

So, some clarifying statements then I'll dig into this a little bit deeper.

What's the checklist? It's the list of things that everyone who's serious about this seems to agree you need to have a in order for your indie career to be successful: professional genre-specific covers, great blurbs, books that hit enough genre tropes, a release schedule that keeps new books in front of readers at least every few months. I'm sure I left a few thing off of that, and debating what should be on the checklist could last for days.

Nothing is inherently wrong with that list. Each of those things has proven important, critical really, to success. What I've noticed, though, is that we seem to be putting more attention on those things and not as much on writing really good books. Where do I get this idea from? From reading a lot of indie stuff.

I've been spending a bit of time doing some market research. Trying to figure out what is it that makes a bestseller in my genres. What are the readers responding to? I've also been reading in a few other genres that I've had ideas in. Again, trying to become familiar with the tropes and the things that readers are looking for. Not something that's necessary to do, I don't suppose, but seems like a smart thing to do.

Here's the big thing that I've taken away from reading those books. The covers are great. The blurbs are good. They are priced in a way that is enticing to the reader. The actual writing, though, is just not very good. Indie authors, we need to work harder on the craft. Too many times I've seen characters who are paper thin. The dialogue they use is either unnatural or so melodramatic that it's unbelievable. Too often they have just the right skill needed to get them out of whatever situation they find themselves in. (He's trapped in an airplane hangar with his hands handcuffed behind his back and a running helicopter just outside? Good thing he flew sorties over in Iraq and also spent that summer touring as an escape artist. Granted, you hadn't mentioned any of that up to this point in the story.) The plots are either so far-fetched that they are unbelievable or so derivative that they are interchangeable with a dozen other books. Unique settings are non-existent or the writer has spent almost no time grounding the reader in the place where the action happens so the big action scene doesn't have the emotional impact that it needs to.

I could go on to list a dozen other things that are wrong with many of the indie books that I've read lately, but I think my point is made.

How do we make them better?

The solution, as I see it, actually has two parts. The first is on the authors. There are a few things that we need to be doing. We need to be spending more time thinking about our stories. I am a big reader of Kboards and the message board there where many indie authors congregate. A lot of invaluable information is shared there. But something else that I've been seeing there a lot more lately are threads on how fast someone is trying to write a novel. They are writing quickly so they can edit quickly and release quickly and move onto the next book quickly.

Speed and quality are not related. There's nothing at all wrong with writing quickly or releasing quickly.  Not if you've taken the time before actually writing to make sure you know your story inside and out and that your story is unique. During that planning time is when we need to be asking ourselves critical questions that aren't going to leave us with books that read like a dozen others also in the genre. It's that planning time that will let us build characters who feel real, who have unique voices both in what they say and how they say it. It will let us create worlds that are fully formed and allow setting to be a player in the stories just as much as our characters are.

I'd also argue that this planning time should take longer than you expect. Sometimes stories come to you fully formed. I've had it happen before. But more often than not they don't. You get them in bits and pieces. Take the time needed to knit those pieces into a great story. Recognize that some of those pieces may need to be changed to make them work together. And just like you should let a story sit before coming back to it, same thing holds true for an idea. Let it sit before you dive in and start writing.

I really feel like that's the biggest problem. It's not a lack of creativity on the part of most indie authors. I think most of us have that in spades. We just don't give that creativity enough time to come out.

The second part of this solution falls to anyone who is seeing these stories before they are published. That could be beta readers. That could be professional editors. It doesn't matter who. Both groups need to push authors harder for originality. Push harder for believable dialogue. Push for better everything. Whether or not you're being paid, if you're in a position to deliver critique, be critical. Flag those areas that feel derivative. Flag those areas that feel underdeveloped. Flag those areas that feel unbelievable.  A good writer will want that from you. Yes, it stings sometimes, but you have to be OK being the person who make the writer cringe a bit.

Like I said up top, a lot of this was written for my own benefit. I have plans for a new series that I'm working on. I've been thinking a lot about the checklist. I've already built some covers and the first book isn't even finished, for goodness sakes. Obviously, my cart is miles ahead of my horse. I need to do better about focusing on the most important part of an indie author career, the authoring. I decided to share this overly long post, though, because I didn't think I was the only one who needed to hear it. Hopefully, I delivered it in a way that wasn't offensive. And, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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