More thoughts on self-publishing

by Hugh Ashton

I’m not attempting to monopolize this blog, but my last post seemed to generate quite a lot of interest, including some from people who had interesting things to say, but haven’t yet bothered to write them here as comments.

One point that was made in conversation to me was the question of self-publishing fiction rather than non-fiction. To summarize what he said (and I am sure my friend will correct any misinterpretations of his thoughts) - non-fiction is quantifiable to a much greater extent than fiction. You can make a reasonably intelligent stab at guessing that “Penguin Care for the Over-80s” will not have a terribly big market, while “How to wipe out your credit card debts” will have a much greater chance of success. In fiction, on the other hand, chance plays a much greater part. Who would have guessed that the Harry Potter series would take off the way that it did? It was turned down by over 40 agents, I believe, all of whom have probably cursed their lack of judgement with phrasing that would do credit to Voldemort himself. And some “famous” writers come up with duds. Elmore Leonard, for example, who is one of my favorite dialog stylists (and he has some lovely comments about writing dialog which I’ll quote below), has not always come up with a success. So that’s why non-fiction tends not to be self-published to the same extent as fiction. Poetry, of course, is yet another kettle of piranha.

Anyway, the proof copy of Beneath Gray Skies came back today. I have to say, even though my name has appeared on the front cover of publications in the past, this was a thrill (does it ever wear off?). The cover has come out exactly as I designed it (the fact that a couple of items are off-center is my fault - not Lulu’s). I also misunderestimated (I love that word) the amount of space for the inside page margins - it makes a 500-page book a little difficult to read if the text is too close to the binding. So I’ve redesigned the book, with a wider inner margin and a tighter leading value (which IMHO make the whole thing look better anyway). Amazingly, the page count has come down fractionally, which means I will have to re-do the cover (spine will be a fraction slimmer).

However… and this is not good news… Lulu has a bug in the database. It’s bitten me in the backside, and it’s bitten a number of other people, and it means I am temporarily (I hope) unable to update my projects with the new files. Grrrr… I have contacted their support teams, and apparently it is being fixed - it has been for some people already. So I hope I’m next in line. Once I’ve done that, I can order two new proofs (pocket and trade sizes) and approve them. Lulu does not allow a book to go out into the big wide world without a proof of the final revision being ordered and approved by the self-publisher, which is reasonable, I suppose.

And the other thing is that now the book is on the market, I have to do battle with the US IRS in order to make sure my royalties are not withheld against tax. Not that it will amount to a fortune (unless all you good people go out and buy copies), but I seem to remember someone once talked about “no taxation without representation”.

Oh yes, Elmore Leonard.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . .
. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

I went through my next novel ruthlessly pruning adverbs after reading this. Also, he says “avoid prologues” and “never use ‘suddenly’”. In Beneath Gray Skies I broke some of his rules (there’s a prologue, and I use regional dialect a lot, but I think the dialog still holds up).