Thursday, March 15, 2012

Adventures in (Reviewing) Self-Publishing; or, You Need an Editor

With four reviews behind me, I'm still only beginning to review books professionally--though at these rates, I think it's more like semi-pro. (I hope I'm still eligible for the Book Review Olympics.) Through reviewing these four books, I've already suffered a crisis of conscience about stepping on people's dreams and developed a distate for sock puppet-written reviews.

Today, I'm here with a post directed at those self-published authors or those considering self-publishing, with a very simple message: self-published author, you need an editor. I don't mean you need a copyeditor who can help you with commas (though you need one of those, too). You need an editor to tell you what's wrong with your story.

But until you get one of those, here's three basic lessons.

1. You need a plot and character motivations that make sense.

If Victor Frankenstein's brother Ernest wants to build an army of monsters to destroy Napoleon, why is he terrorizing London--why not help the British against Napoleon? If a video-game company developed a shape-changing robot with human-level AI, is the best use of that robot as the centerpiece of their theme park? And if that evil robot controls an army of robots in a rare-metals mine, wouldn't it make more sense to use those robots to work the mine rather than kidnap and enslave unruly children?

Self-published author, you need a professional editor to be able to notice and point out that your book has holes. I don't need to read your book and I can already tell you: your plot has holes; and your characters are making decisions that serve your story rather than their characters. You may have a great idea for a cool set-piece--London burning! a robot fight in a mine!--but I can't see how cool that set-piece is when I'm rolling my eyes at your plot holes and your character' actions. Your set-piece is cool, but we need to get there in a way that makes sense for your characters.

2. Your ideology is showing

Propaganda gets a bad rap. Sure, Ayn Rand's fiction is generally bad, but not because she uses it to express her philosophy. (Occasionally, it's bad because the philosophy overwhelms the fiction, as with John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged.) But there are some propagandistic books that are genuinely great books: for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin no longer carries the same punch today, but when it was written it was exciting, funny, moving, and carried a big old lesson. And all those worked together.

But you, self-published author, you need to rein that shit in. It's fine to have a lesson or a message. You want your two teenage brothers to learn about self-reliance? Great. But you need to be honest about your message and think through what you're saying. How do these brothers learn self-reliance when they have each other? How will your reader learn a lesson about self-reliance when the heroes are constantly being shepherded by friendly companions?

Also, you lay it on a little thick when your narrator casually mentions that the Fed treats the economy like a video game.

3. "I do not think it means what you think it means."

You need help with words. We all do, so there's no shame in that, in general. But you use the word "facade" to mean "deep interior self," and that's a goddamn shame.

This shades into the copyediting that you need--because you need it, trust me, we all do--but you need someone who can pay attention to your word choice. Even if you know what words mean, there's a chance that you're using the wrong one for what you're trying to accomplish: you're using a simple word where you need a complex one or, more likely, you're using a complex word where you need a simple one.

Take the word "said." It's a nice simple word and you seem to hate it. Instead of marking your dialogue with "said," you clutter your dialogue with the help of a thesaurus. Characters never "say" dialogue, they "ordain, growl, beseech, stammer, emit," et al. This is fun only if you're learning a new language or studying for your SATs. (Nice use of "concupiscence," by the way.) Otherwise, you might as well stand next to your reader and jab them in the ribs every time a character speaks.

A plea

I'm only saying all this because you're not a terrible writer with nothing to say. I may not like your libertarian-infused evil-robot YA thriller, but I want it to be the best libertarian-infused evil-robot YA thriller it can be. And it can be better, self-published author. The first step to getting a better book is to recognize that you need an editor.


  1. You should be that editor!

  2. Don't give away the end of the series (of posts)!

  3. Damn! Now I *really* want to hear your feelings on "Ready Player One". Get on that one!