From Editing for Indie Writers

Indie Publishing Heads’ Up: Cover Size Requirement Change

Starting June 14, Smashwords updated their requirements for covers to get into their Premium Catalog (worldwide distribution through Apple, etc.).  They are planning ahead for requirement changes in August from Apple: Apple will start requiring that the covers be at least 1400 pixels on a side.  The minimum requirements for Smashwords still are 600 pixels on the short side, but that will not get you into the Premium Catalog, and you want that.

Previously, I’d recommended covers be 750 by ~1000 pixels.  It ended up being 750 by 1150 pixels to be proportionate to a 6 by 9 cover, or 750 by 1200 for a 5 by 8 cover (the two most popular print sizes).*  However, with the requirement changes in August, that won’t work.

Here are what the requirements will be:

  • Smashwords: 1400 pixels shortest side minimum.
  • Kindle Direct Publishing (Amazon): 1000 pixels minimum longest side, recommended 2500 pixes longest side.
  • PubIt (B&N):  2000 pixels length maximum, longest side.

The minimum size of a Smashwords cover will be 2100 pixels (proportional to a 6 by 9 cover) or 2240 pixels (proportional to a 5 by 8 cover), which is incompatible with PubIt requirements.

So here are your options if you want to use all three sites (and why not?):

  • Resize your cover to 1400 by 2000 pixels, no matter what the original dimensions are, and risk it looking weird as the proportions change, then use it at all three sites (not recommended).
  • Go with two different covers until B&N changes their requirements to look equally pretty as Apple.

Keep in mind that existing covers will be grandfathered in, according to Smashwords, so you won’t have to resize existing covers unless you update the cover for some other reason.

I recommend switching to two covers:

  • Smashwords/KDP covers at 1500 pixels on the shortest side.  This will lead to 1500 by 2250 for 6 by 9 proportional covers and 1500 by 2400 pixels for 5 by 8 proportional covers (with the benefit of being able to just set the short side at 1500 and let the program work the math, knowing you’re safe).
  • PubIt covers at 2000 pixels on the longest side (or 1250 pixels on the shortest side, whichever is easier to remember).
  • These covers are probably bigger than you want for a website small picture for promotions.  I’d go with 750 pixels on the short size for blog posts and 200 pixels on the short side for sidebar stuff.

I also recommend that if you’ve been buying 72 dpi images that you switch up to the next resolution bigger.  I use Dreamstime; the largest size of the 72 dpi pictures goes up to 533 by 800 pixels, which is WAY smaller than 1400 pixels on the short side and will probably look bad at the new sizes.

Something I think everyone should take away here: save the master file in a higher resolution (300 dpi, probably), and resize to the smaller dimensions using a different file, because who knows when the standards will change again…

*A 6 by 9 cover is a 1.5 ratio and approximates a trade paperback size; a 5 by 8 cover is a 1.6 ratio and approximates a mass market paperback size.  (The Golden Ratio is 1.61803399-ish, if you follow such things.)  Personally, I recommend going with a cover size that wouldn’t be incompatible with the print book, because it’s a pain to resize those things anyway, and you want to do less resizing rather than more.  KDP recommends going with the 1.6 ratio.

Editing for Indie Writers: Copyediting Checklist Part 3 (Line edits)

The indie editing series continues (starts here but the collective posts are here).

The line-editing saga continues!  Remember: use your style sheet, follow the five (or six) Cs, and the author’s vision supersedes other considerations.  If you’re not sure what the actual rules of any given point are, look them up;  if you disagree, note it on your style sheet.

Check that:


  • Sentences contain verbs in correct tense, person, and number (look up irregular verbs).
  • Transitive verbs take an object and intransitive verbs don’t.
  • Linking verbs (seem, look, feel) don’t outweigh active verbs
  • Phrasal verbs (get up, run off) are replaced with active verbs (if necessary)
  • Auxiliary verb phrases are kept as short as possible (“it will have been necessary to have seen it” to “we needed to see it”); this often goes with unnecessary passive verb phrasing.
  • Passive verb phrasing is not used unnecessarily.
  • Incorrect participials (words/phrases that look like verbs but act like adjectives/adverbs) are used correctly, especially ones that act like misplaced modifiers (“running around the yard, Grandpa watched the chicken from his rocker”).
  • Excessive participials aren’t -inging and -eding every couple of sentences.
  • Gerunds (words that look like verbs but act like nouns, like “my favorite activity is reading,” which does not mean that my favorite activity has just opened up a good book) are used correctly.
  • The subjunctive mood is used correctly, if used at all.
  • Note: Leave split infinitives alone except in places where it would be out of character not to do so (e.g., a grammarian of the old school wouldn’t split their infinitives).


  • Excessive adverbs are trimmed, especially where they replace the use of more descriptive verbs (“ran quickly” vs. “raced”), describe dialogue unnecessarily (‘@#$%^&*()@#$ %^&*()!@,’ he said foully”), or stack up (“really, truly, and very, very big”).
  • Adjectives aren’t used in place of adverbs (“he runs funny”); however, note that it may be in character to do so.
  • Adverbs of degree (“good, better, best”) are used correctly.  The superlative degree is only for the most impressive item being compared, and requires at least three things to compare (“the best of the three”).  Otherwise, use the comparative (“the better of the two”).
  • Uncomparable adverbs, like “perfect” aren’t compared — there is no “perfecter” or “more perfect,” except in paradoxes.
  • Adverbs are as close to the word they modify as possible.


  • Only one preposition is used in a phrase, if possible (e.g., change “take it off of the shelf” to “take it off the shelf”).
  • Prepositional phrases are as close to the word they modify as possible to prevent misplaced modifiers.
  • If you end up repeating a word twice due to a preposition (“he goes in in the morning”), then rephrase (i.e., don’t add a comma between the two or ignore it).
  • Prepositional phrases aren’t stacked (“we went into the house on the hill with the gravel road in the middle of the woods by the stream,” etc.).
  • Note: Leave sentences ending with prepositions alone unless required.


  • Coordinating and correlative conjunctions (and/but/etc.) coordinate equivalent things (“It was neither here nor there”).  Each equivalent element should be phrased as similarly as possible.
  • Final conjunctions (consequently, for, hence, so, thus, therefore, etc.) show causation (“I was lost; hence, I asked for directions”).
  • Note: It’s fine to begin a sentence with a conjunction.  But it must join the current sentence to the previous one in the same manner as it would if both sentences were clauses in a single sentence.


  • Interjections are set off by commas or are in separate sentences (“What were you thinking, you idiot?” or “What were you thinking?  You idiot!”).
  • Names are set off if they are being used as interjections (“DeAnna, what were you thinking?” or “DeAnna!  What were you thinking?”).

Word Usage

  • Word usage (e.g., is it “lie” or “lay”? “A lot” or “alot”?) is correct.  I recommend scanning through a list of commonly misused words (such as one in your style guide or Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words).  You will probably be surprised what you didn’t know.  I was, and I like this stuff.

Right.  Next up:  Punctuation checklists…

Editing for Indie Writers: Copyediting Checklist Part 2 (Line Edits)

The indie editing series continues (starts here but the collective posts are here).

Line-editing the text in a work is what most people think of when they think of line edits.  And most people think of it as being relatively straightforward.  You check for correctness.  Either it’s correct or it isn’t, right?

No.  It’s more clear-cut when it comes to non-fiction, but even then it’s not black and white.  Correct is only one of a good copyeditor’s goals.

Remember your six Cs*:

  • Clear
  • Concise
  • Correct
  • Comprehensible
  • Consistent
  • Communicates the author’s vision

Which one is #1 on this list (unless you’re writing corporate stuff)?

  • Communicates the author’s vision

The problem with editing your own stuff is that if you don’t know what you’re doing with grammar and style, then it’s impossible to sort out what communicates your vision and what is simply an oopsie that you’d rather not inflict on your readers.  Another problem with editing your own stuff is that even if you do know what you’re doing with grammar and style, you may not be conscious of everything you do or the reasons you do it–you might find a missing comma and add it without a second thought, when that missing comma was exactly what was needed.

Don’t believe me?  Go read some Stephen King.  There are technical “errors” all over his manuscripts.  And yet his copyeditors–and his proofreaders–let them pass.  Because he needed them.**

So if you don’t think that you can deal with editing your own stuff because you don’t want to think too consciously about how you write or you don’t know grammar and style?  Then hire a good copyeditor.

I suspect a good way to do assess copyeditor quality is to ask for a sample style sheet (discussed here).   They won’t be as thorough as the style sheets that I advocate, but they should have all kinds of notes about things that are technically wrong that the author wants left alone.  Like, “Allow sentence fragments” with some page numbers to note some instances of sentence fragments used the way the author wants them used.


If you know grammar and you’re willing to think consciously about why you break the rules (although you shouldn’t do that while you’re writing, really), you can line-edit your own stuff.

In this checklist, remember that communicating the author’s vision is always more important.  Err on the side of leaving it alone–if you feel like some comma must be so, even though you know it shouldn’t be so, then it must be so.

These are not rules.  They are guidelines.

You will see all kinds of things in this list that you disagree with.  Good.  Make a note of your disagreements and add them to your style sheet.

This is the long checklist.  I’ll do a shorter checklist later to sum up and actually be useful while you’re working.  The purpose of this checklist is to identify your weak spots–if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, you should probably look it up–and to identify what you’re going to add to your style sheet as an exception, because you’re not going to do it.

General Grammar

  • All sentences are complete, with a subject and a predicate.
  • All verbs match their nouns (plural/singular).
  • All sentences are in the correct tense.
  • Pronouns refer back to the correct noun (the noun immediately before it).
  • All modifiers are placed to modify the correct word(s).
  • All sentences are easy to read, with as few modifiers as possible and no more than 20 words.
  • All sentences begin with correct capitalization and end with correct punctuation.
  • All sentences reflect the correct POV (first person, second person, third person and their variations).
  • If using a subset of POV (“tight” third-person POV), the correct voice is used throughout (e.g., no “he thought” or addressing the reader).


  • Proper nouns are capitalized correctly (add to style guide).
  • Compound nouns are hyphenated and pluralized correctly (add to style guide).
  • Nouns reflect the correct number (singular/plural).
  • Possessives are correct and consistent (add irregular cases to the style guide).
  • Appositive nouns, nouns that rename another noun, should be set apart with commas.
  • Pronouns agree in number with their antecedents and agree with their gender.
  • Pronouns are in the correct form (I, me, mine). I is capitalized.
  • Pronoun possessives are used correctly (its vs. it’s).
  • Pronouns are correctly used in the nominative (who) vs. objective (whom) forms.
  • Who/which/what/that used correctly (person/living thing or thing/non-living thing/all of the above).


  • Proper adjectives capitalized correctly.
  • Definite (the) vs. indefinite (a)  vs. omitted articles used correctly.
  • Articles removed from nouns that make up a group (vs. a series of nouns, which take individual articles).
  • Dates used as adjectives punctuated correctly.
  • Adjectives placed to modify correct nouns.
  • Adjectives in predicate used correctly (no “ly”).
  • Participial adjectives correctly refer to the subject of the sentence (Bad: “Dangling ferociously, the lion ran rampant”).
  • Degrees of comparison in adjectives used correctly (good/better/best), including not comparing uncomparable adjectives (like “perfect”).
  • Past participial adjectives (“satisfied smirk”) used and modified correctly.
  • Adjectives in a series coordinated correctly (“a big, red house”).
  • Phrasal adjectives hyphenated, except when appearing in the predicate, as a proper adjective (“Monte Python style”), or a two-word phrase beginning with an adjective (“a quickly raised house” vs. “a not-so-quickly-raised house”).
  • Adjectives used as other parts of speech (“collectibles”)  or vice versa checked against dictionary for correctness.

    Cripes.  I think this is going to take a while.

    *Traditionally, it’s the Five Cs, but they left out the most important one.  Discussed here.

    **Sentence fragment.

    Editing for Indie Writers: Copyediting Checklist Part 1 (Technical Considerations)

    The indie editing series continues (starts here but the collective posts are here).

    It’s helpful to literally print out a copyediting checklist and check off boxes as you complete steps, but it’s not necessary.  Personally, I recommend going through everything in this blog post first, using a checklist, then going back and doing next week’s checklist along with the style sheet.  At this point, you should put all your material in the document and in order, although not necessarily formatted correctly.  Some people like to format first and copyedit second, then do the proofreading once during the galley/proof stage; if that’s the case, make sure you review the formatting steps as noted and make sure you do the formatting checklist at the same time (this will come later).

    Headers/Footers (If formatting before copyediting)

    • POD: Headers/footers on first pages of section correct (may differ than other pages).
    • POD: Headers/footers on even pages correct.
    • POD: Headers on odd pages correct.
    • POD: Page numbers in correct location, formatted correctly, and in order.
    • POD: No header/footer information on title/copyright pages.

    Front Matter – Title and Copyright

    • Title matches exactly in all references in and to the work.
    • Byline matches exactly in all references in and to the work.
    • Copyright date, symbol, and copyright holder present and correct.
    • Copyright information for all images and design work present and correct (may be located in back matter).
    • Publication date present and correct, if desired.
    • Publisher name, city/state/country, and additional contact information present and correct, if desired.
    • Any front matter disclaimers present and correct (e.g., the Smashwords blurbs, safety notices, permissions for lyrics, “no resemblance to persons living or dead,” etc.).
    • POD: ISBN correct and listed, if desired.
    • POD: Library of Congress information correct and listed, if necessary.
    • POD: Edition notice (e.g., First Edition)  present and correct, if desired.

    Front Matter – Table of Contents

    • Table of Contents title present and correct.
    • All necessary items listed, in the same order as in the text, numbered sequentially.
    • At least two items must be present at each level of the outline in order use that level of outline.
    • No two items in the same level of outline may be the same unless they are sub-items to different items.
    • Ebook:  All links working (if formatting before copyediting).
    • Ebook: If using an abbreviated TOC at the front of the book and the complete TOC at the back of the book, both sets of TOCs present, correct, etc.
    • POD: All page numbers correct (if formatting before copyediting).

    Front Matter – Other material

    • All other sections of front matter present and correct, as desired (e.g., List of Illustrations, List of Figures, Preface, Foreword, Dedication, Acknowledgments, Errata, Frontispiece, Introduction, Pull Quotes, Blurbs, Also Available).

    Main Text – Links

    • Ebook: All hyperlinks present and correct.
    • POD:  All hyperlinks formatted consistently and correctly, for ease of use by readers.

    Main Text – Images

    • All figures present and correct, including captions (in order).
    • All tables present and correct, including captions (in order).
    • All illustrations present and correct, including captions (if using).
    • No two captions may match.
    • Formatting for captions is consistent throughout the book.
    • All figures/tables/illustrations aligned consistently.
    • Ebook: All initial caps created as images present and correct, if using.
    • Ebook: All headings created as images present and correct, if using.
    • Ebook: All additional text created as images present and correct, if using
    • Ebook: All glyphs created as images present and correct, if using.
    • Ebook: All images with correct dpi/maximum dimensions.

    Main Text – Section Titles

    • All section titles present, correct, and sequential (check for missing numbers).
    • All subsection titles at the correct level, present, correct, and sequential.
    • If sections have individual author information, all sections’ author information is present and correct.

    Main Text – Notes

    • All notes present, correct, and correctly numbered.  I recommend writing out the exact format for citing references and include it in your checklist (e.g., Lastname, Firstname.  That One Book: A Really Useful Reference, Edition.  City, ST: Publisher, Copyright Date.
    • Ebook: All notes in correct location and all links working, if using.
    • POD:  All notes in correct location.

    Back Matter – Appendices

    • All appendices are present and correct.
    • Appendices are titled correctly and in order.

    Back Matter – Author Information

    • Section title present and correct.
    • Author photo present and correct.
    • Author biography present and correct.
    • Author social media information present and correct (e.g., blog, email, and other contact information).

    Back Matter – Publisher Information

    • Section title present and correct.
    • Publisher photo/logo present and correct.
    • Publisher information present and correct.
    • Author social media information present and correct (e.g., blog, email, and other contact information).

    Back Matter – Additional Work

    • Section title present and correct.
    • Cover image present and correct, if using.
    • Blurbs present and correct, if using.
    • Additional Work material present and correct, if using.

    Back Matter – Bibliography

    • Section title present and correct.
    • Bibliographic entries all present and correct (exact matches on title/authors, titles correct, publication/edition information correct, correct city/state/country, exact publisher name, correct copyright year, correct pages cited, if any, etc., as required by your style guide).  I recommend looking up the correct format for your style guide and write it down in your checklist.
    • Bibliographic entries alphabetized by author’s last name, then by title, as required by your style guide.
    • Bibliographic entries indented correctly (if formatting before copyediting).

    Back Matter – Misc.

    • All additional back matter is present and complete, as desired (endnotes, glossary, index, colophon, etc.).
    • Ebook: Links in all sections of back matter present, working, and correct.
    • POD:  All hyperlinks formatted consistently and correctly, for ease of use by readers.
    • POD:  All page number references correct.

    Let me know if you end up checking for anything else, technically speaking, and I’ll add it to this part of the checklist.

    Next Week: Copyediting Checklist Part 2 (The Six Cs)


    Auuuuggghh!  Bullets and lists!  What was I thinking!  I updated the images section (more on captioning) and the TOC section (more on not duplicating titles).  Also added notes about making sure section titles (chapters) are sequential.  Thanks, Holly G!

    Main Text – Ordered and Undordered Lists

    • All lists where the order of the items is significant are ordered (numbered) lists and that all lists where the order of items is not significant are unordered (bulleted) lists.
    • Punctuation in lists is consistent.
    • Numbering/bulleting in lists is consistent.
    • Indentation in lists is consistent.
    • Level of indentation in lists is correct.
    • Two items must be present to make a list (except ironically), and two items must be in each level of the list.

    Editing for Indie Writers: Copyediting

    The indie editing series continues (starts here but the collective posts are here).

    What is copyediting?

    Copyediting, when it comes to books, is the stage between content editing (which you should have finished by this point) and layout/formatting.  The general idea is to make the book text perfect before handing it off to be formatted, so when the proofreader gets it, they’re only dealing with minor nitnoids and making sure that formatting didn’t introduce any errors (which it can).

    Copyediting traditionally means making text:

    • Clear
    • Concise
    • Correct
    • Comprehensible
    • Consistent

    I also have to add that copyediting has to maintain the integrity of the author’s vision, but that doesn’t start with a c, so sometimes you can get copyeditors who forget that.  Let’s make that:

    • Communicates the author’s vision

    for a sixth c of The Copyeditor’s Five Cs.

    But how to do that?  Do you just go through the document line by line, fix everything that’s wrong, and bingo! that’s copyediting?  Nope.  That’s line editing.  The difference between copyediting and line editing is the style sheet.

    What’s a style sheet?

    A style sheet is a master sheet that:

    1. Provides the source of most of the copyeditor’s decisions, like saying “Merriam Webster Online used for spelling unless otherwise noted,” or “Chicago Manual of Style Online used for style unless otherwise noted.”
    2. Provides guidelines for the copyeditor (and proofreader, later on) for any breaks in spelling, punctuation, style, etc., from those guides.

    So if you use a lot of sentence fragments, a copyeditor may note, “Sentence fragments acceptable” and list a bunch of page  numbers justifying this within your style.

    Why bother?  Copyeditors bother with it because a) they can’t remember everything, especially with some of these 300K fantasy epics, and b) they don’t want the proofreader to freak out over nonstandard usages.

    Why should you bother with a style sheet?

    But you don’t have to deal with a proofreader, and you have a photographic memory, so that doesn’t apply to you, right?  Er, no.

    • You want your manuscript to look professional, and spelling the sidekick’s name as WonderFred for 2/3 of the story and WonderSled for the last third doesn’t look professional.
    • You want to hone your writing, because you’re always forgetting commas the first time through, and you’re tired of having to decide to use a series comma every time it comes up.
    • You’re writing a series, and you don’t want to have to reread your whole series every time you start a new book in order to find out what the dad’s best friend’s dog’s name is.
    • You want to be able to see things in your manuscript that you’ve overlooked before, because you’re too familiar with your work.
    • You’ve tried other methods of editing, like reading your work aloud, and that’s great for making sure your work sounds good, but it doesn’t deal with making sure you have all your ducks in a row.

    I’ll go more into how to build and use a style sheet in a bit, but let me stress here: if you do it the way I do it (which is not the way most copyeditors do it), it will be a laborious (although not that time-consuming) process, and your brain will feel like you’re torturing it.  In a way, you will be: you’ll be forcing it to continuously think about what it’s reading, instead of just glancing over it and seeing what it saw last time.

    Some people recommend reading your work aloud or putting it into a different font in order to force your brain to see it.  I recommend gathering facts about your manuscript, then organizing those facts so that patterns emerge.  This will help show you:

    • Whether you’re describing your characters consistently.
    • Whether your characters say something that’s out of character.
    • Whether you’ve explained a certain detail early enough in your story.
    • Whether you’ve presented all the facts your readers need to work something out.
    • Whether you’ve written flat characters.
    • Whether you’ve repeated yourself in providing details.
    • And more.

    The Writer’s Style Sheet

    If you’re going to go to the bother of doing a style sheet, you may as well do one that benefits you as a writer, not just as an editor.

    Here’s what I recommend:

    1. Save your style sheet as a separate file.
    2. Pick a dictionary and style guide and list them.
    3. Start at the beginning of your story and create an entry for each of the following:
      • List proper names (people, places, even unusual things).
      • List all foreign and/or fictional words not commonly used in English (italicize or format exactly as you do in the document).
      • List any break in grammar, punctuation, spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, etc. from your dictionary/style guide.
      • You can cite the page number of the first place this appears, if you like.
    4. So far, this is just like any style sheet.  But as you work through your document, add the following:
      • Start with an entry for your timeline just after the style guide/dictionary.  All other items should be alphabetized.
      • Any descriptions about each item on your style sheet (e.g., “Wears a vest”).  Include all nicknames or aliases.
      • How other characters feel about it. (You can list this with either or both entries; “Orion’s skin crawls when Mi Tao touches him” could be listed under Orion, Mi Tao, or both.)
      • If applicable, how they feel about themselves (e.g., “Mi Tao thinks her arms are too long”), their beliefs (e.g., “Orion thinks the Pinks will accept him if he brings the chimp back to them alive”), and their goals (e.g., “Orion wants to bring the chimp in”).
      • Note: You must not write down anything you don’t read in your document. For example, if you “know” that Orion is a gorilla (and he is), you must not write it down until you see it actually mentioned in the story.
    5. As you encounter any issues related to the Six Cs above, first check your style guide/dictionary to find the preferred usage for that instance.  Then check your style sheet to see if you have an exception listed.  Follow the exceptions on the style sheet over the rules in the style guide/dictionary.
    6. If you see a pattern among the items that you have to fix, question whether you should add an exception to the style guide.  Your authorial intent takes primacy over all other considerations, even clarity (e.g., if your character is in a drug-induced stupor, you may want your style to reflect that).  Whether or not your authorial intent is on the money should have been determined during the content editing phase (i.e., while writing your synopsis), not here.  If you add an exception to your style sheet, make sure all previous instances align with it.
    7. You may need to take an additional pass or two through the document if you find inconsistencies and have to make changes, or if you added exceptions to your style sheet toward the end of your document.  The document should be textually perfect by the time you’re done copyediting it.

    I recommend typing the descriptions out, too, rather than copy/pasting them.   You can sum up.

    This is something that I learned in an acting class, of all places.  We had to go through a ten-minute scene and laboriously write down every word about our characters–what our characters said about ourselves, what other characters said about them, how they spoke, their stage directions.  We weren’t supposed to think so much as to gather the data about our characters in a way that made us look at our preconceptions about the characters, and how different the characters were than we’d first throught.  It was a pain in the ass, but you knew what the playwright had actually written by the time you were done.  When you manually collect facts, it’s harder for your brain to deny the patterns that are there, rather than the patterns it wants to be there.

    Here, as the writer, you already know your intentions–but you don’t necessarily know how well you communicated those intentions.  By only writing down what you see in the work, you can see whether you did your part in communicating those intentions to the reader.  You can’t do anything about readers who misinterpret or who see your work through different lenses than you intended.  But you can be sure that all the clues are there.  And you can be sure that you’ve presented the work professionally, so your readers aren’t tuning you out due to frustration with crappy commas.

    To get the most out of copyediting, then:

    • Write it down.
    • Look it up.

    Next week: Copyediting Checklist

    Editing for Indie Writers: Dealing with Feedback

    The indie editing series continues (starts here but the collective posts are here).

    Philosophical considerations

    The short answer to the question, “How do you integrate comments from your beta readers (or even from an agent)?” is “Only integrate the valuable ones.”  That’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t really provide practical guidance as to which comments are valuable.

    This is another place where writing a synopsis can help.  If you know the vision for your book, you can quickly judge whether the comments you receive:

    • Fit within your existing structure for the book (tweaks)
    • Alter the structure of the book (rewrites)
    • Are complete nonsense (self-serving blah blah blah)

    And if you’ve presented your best book to your beta readers, the nitnoid comments will be at a minimum and probably actually useful.

    When you’re reading comments, the first thing you want to do is sort out the nonsense comments.  To some extent, any comment that you get on a manuscript is self-serving: your beta-readers wouldn’t be reading your work if they didn’t get something out of it:

    • They enjoy reading your work and want you to get out the best book possible (whatever their particular version of “best” is).
    • They want to learn more about writing, and your work brings up topics they want to discuss.
    • They want to help you get better at writing, because helping people feels good.
    • They want to help you get better at writing, because they’re paying forward a debt to someone who helped them.
    • They kind of like your work, don’t really understand it, and want to make it into something they do understand, so they’ll enjoy it more.
    • They’re frustrated with your work and want to both explain/prove it to you.
    • They’re jealous and want to find something wrong with it, no matter how large or small, and use it to hurt you.
    • They feel pressured or obligated to read your work (e.g., you read theirs).
    • They dislike the way you see the world and want to prove that your worldview is wrong by taking it out on your work.

    There are probably more reasons that people read your work in draft form for you, with both positive and negative intentions, but I think this covers the main ones.  (Note that when someone who offers you money for a story–an editor–wants changes, it’s so it will sell better, in their opinion.  Not that editors are objective, but generally the editor will already like your work, enjoy reading it, and want to make money selling it by that point.)

    The thing is that you can almost always get good feedback from any reader with positive or negative intentions, unless the reason they’re reading is that last point: people who, by definition, don’t like how you think and feel will rarely have anything useful to say to you about your work.  So throw those comments out.  You can’t even trust their decisions about commas.  Just let them go and know that when you get published, you wil probably get similar feedback through reviews, etc., at which point you will just let those comments go, too.

    The rest of the comments can provide valuable feedback.  However, you first have to run the comments through two tests:

    1. Does this comment fit within my vision of the book? If the answer is no, put it into words why it doesn’t fit within the vision of your book (so you can be clear about it if that type of comment comes up again) and disregard it.  If it’s yes, incorporate it, checking carefully to make sure that you catch all instances of implied change (e.g., if you change your character’s shirt to blue, it had better stay blue as long as necessary).
    2. If this comment doesn’t fit within my vision of the book, does it lead me to something even more awesome? If yes, stop making tweaks to your book and rewrite the synopsis in order to play with the idea.  If the idea does indeed make the book cooler, use it–but know that it may mean a major rewrite, a starting-from-scratch rewrite.  If it’s not worth the work, finish your story as best you can and move on.  If the comment doesn’t make your story more awesome, disregard it; it’s probably just the commenter being jealous, having a lot of frustration with your work (is it this story or every story?), or playing around with ideas in order to improve their own brainstorming skills.  Whatever.

    This means that unless your vision for the book is to have everybody and their dog be able to love and understand it (and I discussed why that’s not such a good idea here), you don’t need to make all your readers happy.  You don’t need to explain everything to your readers just because one person whined about not understanding something for two seconds.  The people who don’t get or like your story don’t need to have a say in whether it works or not.  Really.

    However, readers who say, “I didn’t get this part, but otherwise I thought it went great!” have valuable feedback for you.  (And beta-readers?  That’s one reason to start your feedback with something positive: it tells the author not to weed out your comments.)  You can also sometimes tell valuable comments if the commenter doesn’t have anything good to say…but doesn’t say they didn’t like the story and wants to read more.  Beta-readers can be spacy, especially when they get really involved in what they’re reading.

    As you deal with comments, it’s best to armor yourself in the knowledge that no story is meant for everyone, and that there’s a place for all kinds of stories.  Your job, as a writer, is to write the best story you can.  If it’s the kind of story that makes an English major cringe, that’s okay; there’s probably still a place for it–as long as you’re making your audience happy.

    Am I making my audience happy?

    If so, it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks, either in beta-reader stage or in the book reviews you get later.

    Practical considerations

    If you’re getting comments back from more than a couple of people, you may want to build a spreadsheet or table to help you sort them out.  It doesn’t have to be complex.  Set up the following columns:

    • Page number in original version
    • Suggested change
    • Original text (important – this will help you do a “find” for it after you’ve made a few changes and the page number has changed)
    • Suggester (this way, you can sort later to see if anyone’s comments ended up being a waste of time or particularly helpful)
    • Actual change
    • Follow-up notes (including other places you may need to make the change)
    • Status (Done, Disregard, In Progress)

    Again, if you’re dealing with a change to the vision of your book, redo the synopsis.  You may find out that neither the original vision for the book nor the suggested change is the right way to go, but that a third way is what you want, something that comes from riffing on the suggested change.  In fact, that’s what usually happens to me.

    In the end…

    This is the last chance you’ll have to fundamentally improve your story.  You have to be 100% behind your story by this point.  If your story were a character in a superhero story, this would be the point before the character gets their powers, the point where you look at that scrawny weakling and go, “That story…it has problems, but look at that heart.  That story deserves a better life, a chance to right wrongs, a chance to shine.”  Because the next step is copyediting, and copyediting is your story’s training or transformation montage, the part where you take its latent powers and make them true.  Make them something powerful.  Something righteous.  (Or evil.  Evil is good, too.)

    Next time: Copyediting: Let’s see those pushups!

    Editing for Indie Writers: Before you select beta-readers, and what to do with them when you have them.

    The indie editing series continues (starting here but the collective posts are here)!  I’m done with Ebook Formatting 101!

    I’m still looking for one or two things for my cover posts, so if you’re interested in $5 for use of your cover in an ebook, blog post, and possible print book much later on, contact me.  Needed: a “before” type picture with print  horribly unreadable over a busy background image (you can supply an “after” picture, too, if you like), and a “before” type picture with 3d lettering of the cheesiest sort (same with the “after”).

    I said that last time I was going to talk about integrating comments…but I got enough comments about beta readers that I have to back up a little.  So when I put this together as an ebook, this will come before the previous editing post.

    There are three sets of things you should do before you send your book off.  Even if you’ve done this kind of thing before.

    1. Determine the purpose of your book.
    2. Pick your beta readers.
    3. Clean up your manuscript.

    Determine the purpose of your book.

    If you cook relatively well from scratch, you know that salt isn’t just something you dump on food at the table.  It’s not like, when making spaghetti, you just make the spaghetti without salt, bring it to your guests or family with a salt shaker, and let them have at it.  You add salt to the pasta-cooking water, you add salt to the meat, and you adjust the salt after the sauce is put together, right before you serve it.  And then you serve it wih a salt shaker on the side, because lord knows there’s alway someone who wants more salt.

    Marketing is like salting your food.

    Marketing is determining who will like your book and why, and making sure you have those things in place.  Before you write, you should be thinking about your audience.  As you write, well, you should just be writing, honestly.  But if you thought about who will fall in love with your book before you started writing (even subconsciously), you’ll have a better shot of selling your book (however you sell it).  When you’re writing, you should be emotionally involved with your book: that’s a kind of marketing, because you are a part of your audience, and if you don’t love the loveable things in your book, then what’s the point?  Falling in love with your own book: marketing.

    And before you send your book to your first reader, you should check the seasoning, if you will.

    Admittedly, I’m only starting to touch the surface of what it means to make a book marketable, on my personal journey.  There are a ton of people who are better at it than I am.  I recently read Al Zuckerman’s Writing the Blockbuster Novel and found that it really spoke to me.  I don’t know that it would produce a book that withstands the test of time, that is loveable, that will make you feel like it’s saved your life during difficult times, but for blockbusterability?  It definitely spoke to me.  At any rate, I know enough to say that marketability isn’t just something you throw on top of your book at the end…and that knowing your market before you send it to beta readers can save a lot of heartache.

    What’s your market?

    • Start with genre.  If you have two genres, you must determine which one is the most important: which readers are you more likely to make happy?
    • Determine whether you have a sub-genre, like Steampunk or Cozy or Techno-thriller.
    • Determine where your book stands in relation to best-sellers or classics in your genre and subgenre (or explain how it partakes of both genres, if applicable).  Is it Interview with a Vampire meets fairies?  Is it The Princess Bride, only set in a labyrinth?  Is it manga-esque?

    There are 1001 other techniques you can get into, to make sure you know your market.  What personal beliefs do your readers hold (politically, spiritually, sexually–what are their attitudes?  What do they think is funny? dramatic? over the top)?  What cross-markets can you tap (like schools or cake decorators or motorcycle enthusiasts)?

    Basically, what you’re doing is laying down a rudimentary marketing plan.  Which, if you’re selling to big publishers, is nice; if you’re selling indie, it’s essential.  You’re publishing a book…who cares? That’s what marketing is.  Publicity is free coupons and blog tours and Facebook contests.   Marketing is knowing who’s going to eat the meal you’re preparing and keeping them in mind throughout the process: it’s salt.

    Determining your beta readers

    Pick beta readers who fit your market.

    To put it bluntly, that means if you’re in a critique group where the people either do not read your genre of books on a fairly regular basis, or if you’re in a critique group where people are diametrically opposed to the themes in your book, then they don’t fit your market, and you’re not going to get what you need from them, and you should quit that group.  They might be able to improve your comma use, but they’re never going to help you sell more books.  Just go.  The same applies to your beta readers: if your mom is offended by what you write, she’s not your market, and you shouldn’t be inflicting your work on her, no matter how proud she is of you.  She’ll be just as proud if you don’t make her read stuff she doesn’t want to read.

    I’m not going to get into the benefits of critique groups versus early readers who don’t critique or any other variation: do what works for you.  Online, face-to-face–whatever works for you.  Due to the extremely personal nature of “what works for you,” this is a trial-and-error process. I think the only real rule is the one above: don’t bother with beta readers who aren’t your market.  Even if they’re great writers.  You may find that beta readers who are great readers for one type of book are no use on another: for example, some people who read adult books can’t stand kids’ books and will bring up all kinds of issues that kids won’t care about, even if it’s otherwise the same type of book your beta normally reads.

    The thing is, you can’t write a book that makes everyone happy, and trying to do so means that you never hit anyone in particular’s sweet spot.  You don’t just want to serve a lot of food, you want to sell the food that makes people come back for more, for some reason or another.  Customer loyalty means that people are looking for your stuff–you don’t have to convince them to buy your book (or your food); they already know you have what they like.  Even McDonald’s* has a sweet spot: if you’re on the road and everyone’s tired and it’s late and nothing has gone right that day, you can stop at McDonald’s, and they will have hot food that tastes just like it tastes everywhere else, and it won’t be scary like that last truck stop where you had to stop because the engine was overheating and someone didn’t go to the bathroom at the last place even though you asked “Are you sure?” twice.  Okay, it’s not a lofty sweet spot, but there it is, and people buy the food.

    Your first test of whether your book hits that sweet spot is your beta readers.  If you’re selling a McDonald’s book, don’t pick readers who look down on McDonald’s and never eat there; pick people who eat at McDonald’s all the time, people who eat at McDonald’s some of the time (on the road), and people who break down and buy a bag of Big Macs because sometimes you just need a bag of Big Macs.  If you have a caviar book, get caviar readers.  And so on.

    Special topic: Beta Readers who are too nice/not nice enough.

    This is a trial-and-error problem.  Remember, what works for you is what’s important.  If you want people who approach reading more critically, get into a critique group or send your ms. to readers who graduated from the “criticism is more important than creativity” school of Creative Writing (we’re all over the place, sadly).  If you want people who are less critical, send your ms. to people who just like to read.  But always make sure you’re working with people who fit your market.

    If you find that your beta readers are in your market but are not telling you enough information (“I enjoyed it.” “I didn’t care for it.”) then you can take several approaches:

    • If someone in your market likes it, maybe no more needs to be said.  It was good enough for them. That may be all you need to know.
    • You can ask whether that person is really in your market.  If they didn’t care for it, ask them if they can put a specific finger on why.  If they say something along the lines of, “I don’t like it in stories when ____ happens,” then they aren’t in your market.  Like, “I think they swear too much,” or “Bossy characters annoy me.”  If they can’t put a finger on why more than once, they may not be useful as a beta reader.
    • If you just want them to dwell on the story as much as you do, get therapy.

    Special topic: Agents and editors.

    When you’re submitting your work to agents and editors, remember that they have to be part of your market in order to do a good job on your story.  You must do your research to find out what they like to read: an agent or editor who doesn’t like your story won’t know what to do with it, really, and if for some reason bought or took on your book, would likely screw something up.  Again, you can’t make everyone like your book.  You can’t pitch to every agent or editor just as you can’t hassle random people to be your beta readers.

    Clean up your manuscript

    Okay…back on track.  I posted how to clean up your ms in this post.

    Next time (I hope): Integrating comments!

    *My husband keeps referring to “that new Scottish retaurant, MacDonald’s,” in a fake Scottish accent.  This is leanding me to misspell it as MacDonald’s on a regular basis, so if I missed one, my apologies.

    Editing for Indie Writers: Preparing for Beta Readers

    If you’re just jumping in, you can start the series at the Intro.  You might also want to see my outline.  New entries every Wednesday.  All the series posts are here.

    Chapter 3, part 1:

    So now your synopsis is done.  If you threw yourself into writing mode instead if being over-rational about it, then you may see a few areas that you want or need to change.  This is the time to come to peace with those changes (you may want to look at the section on how to handle beta-reader changes to help you decide whether to make the changes or not, but I haven’t written that yet): the last thing you want to do is hand something off to a beta reader with the caveat that…well, honestly, that it’s totally pointless for them to read the book now, because you’re going to change something that might totally invalidate their opinion.

    But what are beta readers?  It’s a phrase that comes from software testing.  The beta testing phase “…generally begins when the software is feature complete.” (Wikipedia, Software release life cycle).  In writing, beta readers can be friends, family, critique groups, online writing groups–whatever feedback you can get, by hook or by crook.  And your book should be a complete, cleaned-up draft before you give it to them.

    Readers are precious, and beta readers doubly so:  do not waste their time.

    Here are the things that waste time:

    The fact is that your average beta reader only has so much time and attention span: if you have 1001 typos or missing commas, you’re going to use up all that attention on getting feedback on your commas.  You do not want beta readers to worry about commas; you want to use them for telling you:

    • Whether they finished the book, and if not, where they lost interest.
    • Whether they liked the book, and if so, where they got sucked into the story.
    • Who their favorite character was and why.
    • Did the villains work?  How about any romances?
    • If there’s a mystery, when did they figure it out?
    • Any inconsistencies they spotted.
    • Any frustrations with the book.

    That is, you want them to be real readers, reading a real book.

    That means before you send a book to your beta readers you should (in this order):

    • Complete your first draft.
    • Check that your first draft is really complete by following a checklist, writing a synopsis and making changes as necessary, and/or just closing your eyes and declaring it “done.”
    • Spell-check.
    • Read through for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and any other known writing issues, like “using too many be-verbs” or “mixing up past and present tenses” or “head-hopping.”

    You should also make sure the document is in standard manuscript format or a reasonable approximation thereof.  Why?  Because it’s standard, and you want to have zee-ro things distracting your beta readers from your story.  If you throw in weird fonts–they’ll talk about your fonts, not your story.  Page numbers missing?  They’ll point that out, rather than the fact that your main character is unrealistic.

    Stop any issue that you can stop from coming to your beta readers’ attention.  ANY.  The more professional your manuscript is when you hand it off to them, the more likely you’re going to get the comments you need instead of stupid stuff that you could catch yourself.

    Once you have all the issues you can possibly catch yourself caught, then you have a cleaned-up first draft.  Do not send this draft to editors, agents, or self-publish it.  Even if you choose not to have beta readers, there are more things you should do before you go forward (and of course I’ll talk about them later).

    Here’s my checklist for preparing documents for beta readers.  As you learn your own personal writing weaknesses (usually from your beta readers), add items to your list.  But here’s what I do:

    • Format entire document in standard MS formatting.  If only sending certain pages, make sure page numbers match the numbers in the main document (because inevitably chapters will be mixed up later, or you’ll have to rewrite a chapter, or…or…or…).
    • Spell-check the document.
    • Check all indents and returns; check for “big uglies,” that is, stuff that makes paragraphs and/or pages look weird.
    • Do a line edit to catch spelling/grammar/punctuation issues.
    • Check opening and openings of chapters/scenes for excess backstory or other blah blah blah.
    • Make sure names are consistent and spelled consistently.
    • Do a sample for excess be-verbs, especially toward beginning of story.
    • Remove instances of “saying things twice,” or describing things more than once.

    Names are my bugaboo, for some reason.

    Next Week: Integrating Comments: The Tears, The Fears, The Bull@#$%.

    Editing for Indie Writers: How to Write a Synopsis (for Editing)

    Appropriately, I have a synopsis to write today.  I know all this stuff.  And yet I’m still like @#$%^&* synopsis…I hate those @#$%^& synopses…bastards…maybe I’ll make this post just a little longer… Update: done with the synopsis!  Fist punch!  Yessss!!!

    Chapter 2, part 2

    One more thing before we get down into actually writing the synopsis.  If you look up how to edit things on the net, you’ll see a lot of people advocating tricks to get your brain to “see” problems, like reading the manuscript out loud, putting it into a different font, or reading from the end to the beginning.  I recognize the usefulness of these techniques, but I don’t support them, and I try not to use them.  If you’re using tricks, you’re not really training your brain to see what’s in front of you; you’re just distracting the part of the brain that doesn’t want to see (and your brain will become increasingly good at getting around these distractions).  I’d rather train my brain to see issues rather than train it to function less well.  That being said, sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to get the editing done, and that’s all right.

    Right now, we’re doing content editing–editing at the story level.  What trick could you possibly use to see holes in your story?  Can reading from the end to the beginning make them more apparent?  Will reading something aloud tell you how implausible your worldbuilding is?

    To really get down into the meat of your story, you have to see it in a way more thorough than a regular reader does.  You have to be able to tell:

    • Is the beginning in the right place?  Does it introduce the problem of the story?
    • Is the middle entertaining, or does it drag?  Does it include cycles where the main character tries and fails to solve the main problem?
    • Is the ending effective?  Does it solve the main problem of the story?
    • Is the climax the most painful and glorious point in the story?
    • Do the characters fit the story, or the story the characters?
    • Is the overall plot believable?
    • Are you there, in the story?  Or are your characters silhouettes behind a screen (or puppets with outfits pasted on)?  Is it all just a bunch of blah blah blah?
    • Are the surprises surprising, or just out of the blue?
    • What is the overall emotion of the story?  What’s the overall tone?
    • Is the pacing okay?
    • Can your audience really empathize with your POV characters?
    • What themes come up?  Are you really saying what you want to say?  Are you implying something you don’t want to say? (Like “Women are bloody useless.”)
    • Are your subplots all resolved?
    • Is your antagonist effective?  If a non-personified antagonist, is it realized clearly enough?  Does the conflict make you tense?
    • Plot holes…what plot holes?
    • Are your characters interesting…or are they cardboard cutouts?  Do they have feelings, hopes, dreams?
    • Are you writing too much backstory?
    • What does all this even mean?

    There are a thousand and one things you can look for, and the things you need to look for change with every story.   What trick can help you decide what you need to look for?  None, really, and any checklist (like this one) that you try to use faithfully will lead you to mess up your story as you try to strengthen something that needs to be weak for that particular story–for example, you might try to tighten up the pacing on a story by cutting out a long rambling passage where one of the character is just walking around and thinking–and it might be the heart of your story.  Ack!

    Learning how to use a synopsis, even though it doesn’t directly answer the questions in the checklist above, will tend to bring out the answers to those questions.  If you want to discover things that you didn’t expect to find (and the brain is great about not seeing what it doesn’t expect to see), then you need to look in a way that is open-ended yet thorough.

    How to write the synopsis

    Okay, you’re sold.  You want to write a synopsis…but how?

    Here’s what the end result should look like: up to ten pages of text, formatted in standard manuscript format (or even bigger font), that tells the complete story.  The synopsis should have the same voice as the story: the same kind of word choice, the same kind of attitude problems, and the same mood and tone as the story.

    But how do you do that?

    Ironically, for all that I’m telling you to develop yourself as an editor, you can only write an effective synopsis from your writer brain.  Most of the resistance to writing synopses, I think, comes from trying to write them from a cold, logical place that isn’t quite an editor brain but is closer than it is to a writer brain.  That cold, logical place isn’t where the stories happen; trying to force yourself to make stories happen from that place is painful and useless, which is why your brain doesn’t like to do synopses that way, so don’t.

    Whatever it is that you, in particular, do to get yourself to the place where the stories are fun, do that.  If you’re a plotter, write a prepatory outline (or whatever you do).  If you’re  a pantser who needs a particular atmosphere, pen and notebook combination, or whatever, do that.  If you brainstorm, then brainstorm.  I wouldn’t attempt to change your method in the least, no matter how illogical or time-wasting it is.  Get yourself to the point where a) your story’s POV is your POV, and b) you’re just not rational about it, damn it.

    Then write.  As soon as you find yourself niggling, do the things that you normally do to subdue the niggling voice when you’re writing.

    The real pitfall, when you’re writing a synopsis, is to try to get everything in, to completely retell the train of thought that led you to write each incident in a story–you know, to tell a story the way people who are poor verbal storytellers do.  The people who go on and on and on and don’t notice while you check your watch, write out your grocery list, and bang your head against the wall while shrieking, “Get to the point!”  If you find yourself bored when writing a synopsis, this is probably what you’re doing.

    Actually sitting down and writing a synopsis should be full of highs, lows, doubts, hate, love, even outright tears.  It should be just as exciting as writing fiction on your best writing day.  Maybe even full of despair, because you think what you’re writing is stupid, but tense…wound up…full of emotion.  If you find yourself saying, “Oh, but I forgot to add this one important part; I have to go back and add it, or it won’t make sense,” don’t.  Your writer brain more than likely left it out because it’s not important for this particular telling of the story (which is supposed to be shorter…thus missing a few things).  If you go back later and read it and it doesn’t make sense, write another synopsis; it’ll be easier and probably make more sense.

    I’m not saying writing synopses is easy; writing isn’t easy.  But it shouldn’t be boring.

    What do you do when you find issues with your book via your synopsis?  Write past them; complete the synopsis.  Write the synopsis that you need to write, at that moment.  When you are done, identify the differences between your synopsis and your book, and treat them as though they were comments from a beta reader or a critique group:  are these the changes I want to make?  You may want to use the checklist above to help identify the differences; I’ll talk more about comments later.

    You may need to write several drafts of your synopsis for one reason or another.  Do not edit your synopsis, unless you’re polishing it for an editor, and then limit yourself to a spelling/grammar/format check.  (If it’s too long/short, write another one that’s the right length.  Really.)  The synopsis is meant to be pure story, and like it or not, it’ll reflect your basic storytelling skills, no matter how much you edit it.  If you find the synopsis isn’t working for you, write another one from scratch, without so much as looking at the first draft.  Again, the synopsis is a test of and a test for your storytelling skills–your writer brain, not your editor brain.  Do not tempt the editor brain by letting yourself act in an editorial manner.

    I think the great hope of many writers is that an editor will be able to tell them how to improve the story itself, that the editor won’t just fix your grammar and make sure you’re consistent in your details but will actually improve the basic story that you’ve handed them.  A good editor, editing for content, should be able to do this.  However, the writer’s job is to be able to tell a good story that nobody else could tell.  You shouldn’t rely on an editor to make up your deficiencies for you; you can’t always rely on having a good editor, and it isn’t the editor’s job to be good at telling the story.  It’s yours.

    Next Time: Preparing for Initial (Beta) Readers (a.k.a. Cleaning Up Your Manuscript)


    Editing for Indie Writers: Is Your First Draft Ready? (Chapter 2, Part 1)

    I woke up this morning and felt like an utter and complete idiot…about nothing and everything. “Hello, my name is DeAnna, and today I feel like a loser.”  “Hi, loser.”  ***Dave explained what I was really doing wrong, though: “I think it was the cursed tiki idol you took from that cave. Maybe you just need to put it back.”  Look, I will, okay?  Just as soon as I finish this blog post…

    Chapter 2, Part 1:

    One of the things I hear come up over and over with beginning writers is, “Is my manuscript ready to publish?”  It’s a tough call, and that’s one reason that a lot of people would rather have someone else publish their work: it implies that the work has been judged worthy and the writer validated.  But that begs the question…how does the publisher or editor know?

    I think the method that most people who pick manuscripts use is, “Did I like it?” This isn’t the best method for a writer trying to judge their own work:  we tend to swing between ecstatic and despondent or even suicidal when trying to judge our own work, when really, our work deserves neither extreme of emotion.  Another problem is that while publishers can hone their taste, they can’t really predict what will sell beyond looking at comparable books.  If publishers were good at this kind of thing, then they would know exactly which new authors would break in, and which wouldn’t, and they’d hire the right writer to write exactly that book.  This is not to say that publishers are stupid, just that the problem is too complex.

    A third problem is that indie books can be fundamentally different than traditionally published books, and we haven’t even scratched the surface of what that means yet.   I have read all kinds of indie books that I would have no idea of what to do with them in a Barnes and Noble store.  What shelf would it go on?  Would it even have a shelf?  I’ve read indie books that break all kinds of rules: memoirs with fantastical elements to them (and without uplifting endings), kids’ books where the kids don’t get punished for disobeying their non-evil parents, spiritual books about post-apocalyptic worlds that feature more f-bombs than a Dennis Leary comedy routine.  How do you even judge that kind of book?

    For indie writers, there are two ways to tell if the first draft of your manuscript is ready:  the logical way and the practical way. You may have to pick up a few techniques from each way in order to satisfy yourself; they’re both valuable, and, really, you have to do both in order to get the manuscript out the door.

    The logical way: You analyze your manuscript using a checklist or other techniques to determine whether it’s ready.

    The practical way: You’re paralyzed by fear, so it doesn’t matter how logically ready or unready the manuscript is–you just have to hurdle the fear and send out the manuscript.

    What I have seen happen over and over again, in my manuscripts and in talking to others, is that we really want to think of ourselves as logical, but once you pare away everything on the “logical” checklists, you start finding all kinds of excuses to not send out the manuscript, and it becomes evident that no, you weren’t being logical–you were terrified and using “logic” to prevent yourself from having to send out the manuscript, either to self-publish it or to send it to a market.  Or even to send it to your critique group.  (Yes, the idea of sending something to a critique group can be terrifying; no need to be ashamed of it.)

    Personally, the further along I get in my quest to make a living at what I love, the more I see that acknowledging the fear–which is made up of all kinds of sub-fears–is one of the first things that separates people who will get work out and people who won’t.  I was talking to a group of writers about getting negative comments on a blog post, and what I really wanted to say to respond to the criticism was, “Stop looking at me.”  I didn’t really care what they were saying; I didn’t care whether it was complimentary or critical.  I was just tired of having to know that people were…paying attention, which is exactly what a writer should want.  The fear doesn’t have to be rational or reasonable or logical.  You just have to acknowledge it.

    On the other hand, there are the people who seem utterly confident in themselves and their work, even though it’s crap.  I think folks like that are just starting out or have been in a rut for some time, and don’t know enough to know what they don’t know.  Those people obviously should use a logical way to assess their manuscript’s readiness–however, it’s almost impossible, when you’re that person, to tell when you are that person, because of the way our minds work.  Competent people tend to doubt themselves and incompetent people tend not to, statistically.  So really, a checklist is no bad thing, either way.

    However, now that I have you convinced (more or less) that these methods are the best ways to approach the problem, let me mention that there’s a third way that’s better than either a checklist or shoving something out the door unquestioned, and you probably won’t want to hear it.

    The third way is writing a synopsis.

    Okay, question–did you just shut down and say, “Forget it.  Give me the @#$%^& checklist”?

    That’s fear.

    Yes, I’m going to give you a checklist.  However, I’m also going to recommend that you write a synopsis–actually, several different forms of summing up your manuscript, of which a synopsis is one.  Is it necessary?  Yes.  Because, in the end, if you don’t understand why anyone should read your story, then your story is probably not worth reading.  Oh, your writing may be good.  You may have removed all your adjectives and made your dialogue realistic.  You might have compelling conflict, wacky characters, and uplifting sentiments…and no story.

    Nonfiction writers have a good grasp on this.  They have to write up all kinds of summaries and outlines in order to convince a publisher that what they have will sell–and don’t think for a second that what nonfiction writers do doesn’t tell a story, because it does.  Biographies tell the story of a life, and so do memoirs and histories.  Cookbooks tell the story of a meal.  (Why do you think the dessert section usually comes last?)  Instruction manuals tell the story of going from not-knowing something to knowing something, and even providing the story of how to find out more (in the bibliography or recommended reading section).  And so on.  Humans learn through stories.  If-then is a story.  So is why-because.  So is how-like this.

    Fiction writers sometimes like to think that all they have to do is write the story.  But story sometimes gets buried under words.

    Some fiction writers only have to write the story.  These writers tend to fall in two main camps:  the ones who won’t sell, and the ones who have written so many different summaries and synopses and log lines and blurbs that they breathe them.  If you find yourself not writing the quality of plots you want, then write synopses and blurbs and log lines and more, because it will give you a better grasp of story, stripped of almost any other consideration.

    So here’s my advice:

    1. Set yourself a deadline, beyond which the story goes out, ready or not.  You might even send a draft to a friend that they will send out for you–barring any changes they receive before the deadline.
    2. Write a synopsis in order to look at the big picture.  If necessary, write the synopsis the way you wish you had written the book. (You can even write the synopsis before you write the book.)
    3. Go through the checklist to look at the granular details.
    4. Hustle.  That deadline is coming.

    Next time: How to Write a Synopsis (Hint: Torture Can Work Wonders for You, Too!)