In these days of print-on-demand and ebook technology, self (or independent) publishing has never been easier. No longer need we writers employ agents, or write query letters – now it is possible to write the story, edit it and put it up for the world to read.
But should we do that?
I made the decision in 2011, following my “win” in 2010’s NaNoWriMo, to independently publish my novel: Aroha’s Grand Adventure. This was, in part, because one of my prizes was a free proof copy via Amazon’s CreateSpace program. I wrote the novel over the month of November, creating the illustrations as I went, and received my first proof early in 2011. The book was available on Amazon by July 1st, 2011.
Over the next two years, I went on to release my second book, Midsummer Knight’s Quest (which had actually been written prior to Aroha’s) and the first in my Lemur Saga, Fellowship of the Ringtails. So, aside from the lure of the free book, what were the other reasons that inspired me to avoid the traditional publishing route altogether?
1. Rejection letters: OK, so I confess, I didn’t really try too hard to take the trad route. I DID submit my manuscript for Midsummer Knight’s Quest to my favourite children’s publishers, Chicken House, but with little hope and no success – although I do have a lovely rejection letter.
2. I felt my stories were a bit unconventional and unlikely to appeal to the publishing houses’ criteria. Midsummer Knight’s Quest was extremely long and broke some narrator conventions. I knew from the start that I was doing this, and was not entirely comfortable with it, but could see no way to adjust it within the plot. After several suggestions to split it into two books, I’ve currently withdrawn it from sale. As for Fellowship of the Ringtails, it seemed unlikely, even with the success of the Madagascar movies, that any of the “big 5” publishers would take a book about lemurs seriously and even if they did, they’d likely try to force it into the children’s section, meaning I would have to tone down the prose.
3. I wanted to keep control of my stories: if a publishing house purchases your story, it becomes their property. They chose the cover, the illustrators, and may make adjustments. In smaller publishing houses, you may be asked for your opinion, but generally speaking, your book is now out of your hands and your control.
Another advantage of independent publishing, especially via Print-on-Demand technology, is that your book never goes out of print – it’s available for people to purchase for as long as Amazon (or whomever you choose to print through) exist. The “shelf life” in a physical store, unless your book is particularly successful or you’re a popular author, is about 6 months. That’s it. After which it will likely be returned, and pulped, or cycled into the clearance bins. Bookstores cannot afford to keep stock on the shelf that isn’t selling. Most publishing houses will do smallish print runs for unknown/debut authors and, if they don’t sell well, they won’t print more. Of course, with ebooks this is a moot point: ebooks will never go out of print, they don’t take up shelf space or gather dust, and they don’t get shop soiled with time.
That’s not to say indie publishing is without its faults though, for there are many. There are no gatekeepers to indie publishing, so it becomes harder to know what is good and what is not, and some people may choose to self-edit instead of hiring a professional (by way of keeping costs down), which may lead a story to be prone to plot holes and typos or grammatical errors. I do not recommend self-editing. If you can afford it, hire a professional; if you cannot afford it, give proof copies to your grammar-nut friends and encourage them to read it with pencil in hand (they won’t be able to resist correcting the ones they find). But seriously, the editing of your story could make or break your success. Reviewers can, and will, point out the poor editing, and that makes it look very unprofessional to any potential readers.
Also, self-publishing is a lot of work, with very little financial reward. Not only do you have to write the book, but also edit it/have it edited, have a cover designed, format the manuscript so that it looks professional, figure out how to get it up for sale, work through your proof copies to find the typos that were missed and then, once it is finally finished and available for sale, figure out a way to actually sell it.
Because that’s the biggest problem with independent publishing, getting your book noticed. If anyone can do it, and everyone does, then there are millions of books available for sale. How do you make yours stand out among the crowd?
Well, step one is: make your book as professional and interesting and as well-written and edited as possible. Your book must stand by its own merits.
Step two is marketing, and you can learn more about that by attending our May workshop.
Ultimately: if you have a strong, well-written and highly commercial novel, there is no benefit to you rushing the process and self-publishing. If you believe your novel can sit next to James Patterson or Brandon Sanderson or another well-renowned genre-novelist, then there’s no harm in polishing your manuscript, penning a query letter and submitting to whichever of the publishing houses can best fill your needs. If you end up collecting rejection letters, then so be it, you can always fall back on self-publishing! If your novel is, however, a bit avant-garde, non-mainstream, unconventional, or you feel will only appeal to a limited market, then by all means, prepare for the complex and sometimes frustrating journey that is self-publishing.
Do I regret self-publishing? No. I don’t write for the money (which is good, because Amazon won’t pay out until you’ve earned more than $100 in any one Amazon store, and guess what – I’m only halfway there). I write for the characters and I write for my fans. And, most of all, I write for myself.
I do, however, regret rush-publishing Aroha’s Grand Adventure, because I believe, of all my novels, that it had the most commercial promise. And because I was still ironing out typos for months after the initial release. Don’t rush the process!
We will speak more about the self-publishing process in following blog posts, but you might like to check out this previous one on creating a mobi ebook.
We have already discussed First and Second (more briefly) person point of view (POV), so now we move on to the very popular Third Person.
What is Third Person POV?
Third Person POV uses pronouns such as: he, she and they, and also names. It shows you what that particular person is feeling, doing, seeing etc at that particular point in time. It creates more distance between the reader and the character, but can still be used to encourage a certain level of intimacy.
Third Person is popular across all the ranges of fiction, and even into non-fiction (especially historic). It is an especially useful tool in genres such as epic fantasy, or any prose where many characters are involved, often separated by distance and sometimes even time.
There are three specific types of Third Person narrative:
Third Person Objective
This is when the tale is written from the perspective of a neutral or impersonal narrator. They do not know precisely what any of the characters are thinking or feeling, only what they can observe them doing.
This can present a challenge to the writer; because you cannot see into the characters’ heads, then you must show what they are feeling by physical cues: such as expressions, stance and other behaviour. It is a good practise for writing in show, not tell.
However, it does not create intimacy between the reader and the characters.
Third Person Omniscient
The tale here is told from the perspective of a narrator capable of “seeing” into the heads of all the characters – basically, “Omniscient” means “All-knowing”.
I am not a fan of this perspective, as it is very hard to write it well, and it often leads into what I refer to as “head hopping”. This is when you jump from one character’s thoughts to another and it can be tremendously jarring. It is also harder to keep secrets from the reader when you know that one character is secretly planning on betraying the protagonist. This fact can, of course, also be used to ramp up the drama.
Third Person Limited
This is probably my favourite, and also the closest to First-Person you can get in a Third-Person narrative. Basically, for a passage of time – generally a chapter, sometimes only a paragraph, or even an entire story – the reader is made aware of one character’s emotions/thoughts etc, they are essentially viewing the world through that character’s eyes. Like with First-Person, although the pronouns still remain he/she/they.
It has an advantage over First-Person in that you can break away to another character or event more easily; you are able to describe the character without having to fall into “looking at themselves in the mirror” techniques; and it is easier when dealing with multiple story-lines.
The only issues with writing in Third-Person Limited is it can be quite easy to accidentally slip into someone else’s POV for a couple of sentences. This jars the reader, knocking them out of the spell the story has weaved into and can also be confusing. A good edit should be able to pick up on these instances.
Due to the nature of my stories: non-human protagonists, multiple POV characters, I favour Third-Person Limited in my writing. It is somewhat like having the best of both worlds: sharing the intimacy of one character’s thoughts and emotions, whilst also being able to break-away into a sub-plot.
There are various types of Point of View (POV) used in conventional writing. Over a series of blog posts we will be discussing the most frequently used mechanisms, their pros and their cons. We shall begin this series with First Person.
What is First Person POV?
First Person is when the story is told from the perspective of one character, the world as viewed through their eyes. It is characterised by use of the pronoun “I”. It puts the reader directly into the head of the protagonist; you can read their thoughts and see, hear, smell and feel via their senses. Thus it is a very intimate form of writing, creating a bond through the character and the reader.
It is currently very popular in Young Adult fiction: Vampire Academy, Twilight, Virals, and present, although less frequently, in Middle Grade:Bartimaeus series,Percy Jackson. It is often portrayed as though the reader were accounting their story to the reader, although sometimes it is written as a diary, letters or other correspondence. There seems to be some dichotomy amongst readers about whether or not they like it – I remember one customer avidly declared she would NEVER read anything written in First Person. I personally enjoy it, especially in stories with a strong, easily identifiable protagonist. The success of stories like Twilight can be, at least in part, attributed to the creation of a relatively flat, under-described character in which it is easy for the reader to imagine themselves.
Writing in First Person allows the writer to play with the reader. Ultimately, the tale will be biased in favour of the narrator, and as it is seen through their eyes, told through their voice, then the truth will be filtered through their own beliefs and thought-patterns. In, for example, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, the narrator is a teenage boy with Autism. He sees the world in black and white, and thus it takes him longer to figure out the shades-of-grey puzzles that the reader has already picked out. The narrator can also lie to the reader, allowing for unexpected twists. However, this should be done carefully, and the foreshadowing should offer some hints to what is really going on. One of my favourites along these lines is Joanne Harris’s Gentleman and Players. Everything should tie in neatly and the narrator should not be so much telling straight-out fibs but skipping around the truth and omitting relevant details.
One issue that I have with First Person narrative, is that I generally need to LIKE the character. If they have strong antisocial views – misogynistic, racist, sociopathic, etc – then it can make me very uncomfortable and I may wind up putting the book down. This is, I imagine, the intent of the author, such as in books like Perfume andLolita, which makes them a powerful read. However, I could not finish Catcher in the Rye because being in Holden’s head was making me emotionally irritated. Likewise, with Paulina Simon’s Tully, I really could not identify with the character and gave up on the book halfway through.
First Person does have some limitations, of course. It does not easily allow for split-narratives with multiple character leads. Some authors have remedied this by switching between two first person narrators – this can be very successful (one of my favourites is Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones) but must be done with care. Jumping between two first-person narrators can be very disorientating for the readers, especially those that practice a stop-start method of reading (snatching a page or two here and there) as it can be confusing to remember whose head you are in. This can be counteracted in several ways: changing font for each narrator, applying headers to the page, or – and this is the best – by having two very distinct characters with distinct voices. Whichever method chosen, the writer should select one narrator per chapter, and stick with them from beginning to end.
Another technique is to mix a first-person narrator with a fixed-third POV (more on these later). This allows more flexibility with events, but the main narrator should always be the one written in first-person.
Another limitation with First Person is that if the protagonist is not able to see, hear or otherwise experience an event, then it is almost as though it did not happen. A series I enjoy, Kim Harrison’s The Hollows, is written entirely through the POV of one character – Rachel Mariana Morgan (she is such a memorable character, that I can remember who entire name, something of a rarity) – however, in one of the books, one of the major supporting characters dies. But Rachel is not there to witness it and thus it all happens off-screen, and thus loses something of its impact (and keeps the reader wondering if it were true).
Some tips for writing in First Person:
- Keep the writing style true to the character. Ie: if your main character is an impulsive teenager with ADHD, keep the plot fast, and the action plentiful.
- Brainstorm your character first. Give them a name and traits – are they impulsive? Empathic? Quick to jump to the wrong conclusion? Once you have established this, make sure their behaviour is consistent throughout the narrative.
- Your character must be the centre of all the action.
- Don’t get too lost in their thoughts. Introspection can be boring. If it’s important to the plot, show it through their actions.
- There are more senses than just vision and hearing.
- Generally speaking, your First Person narrator will be most convincing if they are human.
- Describing your character can be difficult. Do this carefully. Mirror scenes should be avoided at all costs, and characters mentally bemoaning their hair-colour/style are likewise something of a cliché. For the most part, the reader doesn’t really need to know exactly what the character looks like – a few hints here and there will help, but most readers will create their own mental image.
First Person is a powerful POV, allowing the reader to immerse themselves completely in the body and mind of a character. It is best suited to stories with a strong central character.
Second Person POV is rarely used in fiction. It generally only shows up in the occasional literary short story, such as when an author is being experimental or trying to be clever, in poetry, or in children’s literature in the format of Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. It is characterised by the use of the pronoun “you”.
In tales when you make choices – such as the case with the children’s books mentioned, it is very suitable, because you, the reader, are driving the tale. However, it can make readers feel uncomfortable: “But I wouldn’t do that!” “I don’t think that way!” I have only ever read one novel in which it was used – Iain Banks Song of Stone.
It is, perhaps, a little ironic that it is not a popular mechanic to use, yet the goal of most wish-fulfilment fiction (such as Twilight) is to make the reader feel like they ARE Bella.
Second Person is not an easy POV to write from. It would probably be best in the inspirational-type literature – stuff like Jonathan Livingstone-Seagull and The Alchemist. Although it should be noted, neither of these are in Second Person.
It comes with a rumbling, a deep and guttural roar. My feet awake first, propelling me out of bed and across the floor almost before my brain has registered: “Earthquake!” Into the doorway, ground rolling beneath my feet. Fingers clutch the frame, crouching, eyes scrunched closed. As if that makes it any easier. As if the night is not dark enough. The house groans and moans, bucking like a beast untamed. No room for thoughts in my head – just a desperate plea.
Around me, crashes and bangs. Thumps from below. It feels like an eternity.
It is 45 seconds.
Then, silence. Deep, profound; broken only by the distant sounds of car alarms. I grab my husband, crouched in the adjacent doorway, and hold him tight. Insanely, a sense of relief pervades me. This was the Big One, they’ve been threatening it for years, the Alpine Fault, due to fracture at any time. And we have survived.
Except that it wasn’t.
No power, no Facebook. The phone lines are all jammed, but I fumble off a text message to my mother, on a phone that’s nearly dead. I cannot stop shivering. Can’t find the flashlight, but husband grabs the fully charged laptop and we use it to light our way downstairs. A mess. The thumps had been our tall book cases, and the floor is littered with books, lying like broken birds. Upstairs, my television, a 17-inch brick, had crashed to the floor within arms reach of my refuge. And I hadn’t even registered it.
The front door is stuck, so we wrench it open. I walk to the road. All seems oddly still and calm. No broken building. With no power, I seek shelter in my car, fumbling to find a radio station and a news report.
Magnitude 7.1. No reported casualties.
Sirens break the silence with their screams.
We crawl over the bookcases and into the kitchen, fumbling to plug in the old-style phone. Dial tone, but it won’t ring. The lines must be jammed.
Adrenalin dying, exhaustion takes hold. Aftershocks rattle on continuously, as we huddle on bean bags in the upstairs doorway, shaking with cold and nerves. Finally, I allow my husband to coax me out of the (perceived) safety of the doorway, and back into bed. I bring the bean bag with me. As if that will help.
We hear from our family. They’re alive and okay. Just scared. We’re all scared.
Dawn comes, and with it a still surreality. Power is restored, but as aftershocks continue to rattle the house, my nerves cannot take being confined within walls. The frost has melted away, into a sunny spring day, and I join the multitudes as they roam the streets, cameras in hand, looks of stunned disbelief on their faces. Scarce a chimney left standing. Brick walls are toppled. Local shops reduced to rubble.
But no-one has died.
The face of our city has changed, but this is only the beginning. For Mother Nature is not done with us yet…