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Should we be seeking perfect prose?

plot-or-proseI recently got another rejection; the feedback is similar every time. A good story that is engaging but needs some editing, often sentences bleed together and there is a little too much passive voice. It got me thinking; do we put too much emphasis on beautifully written prose? Do we try to get something sounding perfect to make it look like we understand every rule of the English language? Is this seeking of perfection affecting our stories? We read for pleasure, we read for entertainment; but do we read for perfectly written words? Well some of us do, but I for one do not. The plot, for me, is the central part of any story, then the characters, then how it is written.

To give an example, I read two books recently. The first had fantastic prose; it was almost lyrical, like a vivid dream. It was nominated for the Man Booker Prize some years ago. However, the story was disjointed; there was no real ending to the book. It tried a cliff hanger, asking the reader to think about what happened next, but I did not care for the characters so was not really bothered. Also, the main protagonist was uneducated, yet we heard the story from his voice, and his voice certainly knew a lot more than he did. The prose, whilst great, did not fit the character and therefore ruined my enjoyment of the story. I am sure it got nominated for the Man Booker Prize for how beautiful the language is, but for me that prose took away from the story.

Another book I read was written a little oddly, it was from the point of view of someone who might be autistic, or potentially abused. A times the prose was not perfect, but it reflected the character, it made you connect with her and root for her. The story was strong too, slowly giving you bits of information or adding a twist that got you thinking. Lyrically it was nowhere near as strong as the other book, but I enjoyed it more. In fact, I have friends who often suggest books, nearly all have praised this book, yet no-one has mentioned the almost perfect prose one.

Now, there is clearly a balance to be had. We do not want typos, not too much passive voice, words that flow beautifully across the page; but this should complement the story, not be at odds with it. I, personally, would rather read a badly written book with a good plot then one that was written perfectly but the story offered little. I really think we need to get our stories out, make sure the plot and characters are strong before worrying about the perfection of the prose. If we can have both, great, if not, go with the story. When you read the blurb of a book, do you think, ‘the characters sound interesting,’ or, ‘I bet this is well written?’ No, you get drawn it by the start of a plot and where it could lead.

I was asked by a friend, “what do you focus on when you write, good prose or good characters?” I replied, “plot, the plot is the thing that keeps you reading. You can have the best characters, the most amazing prose, but if the story is not interesting people will turn away.”

As an indie author, this issue makes it harder to sell books. Read an indie published book and people tend to focus on how well it was written, or if there are any typos or other mistakes. I say, look past these. If you have spent one or two pounds on a whole kindle novel, you can ignore a few mistakes for a good read. I am currently reading an indie published book, there are places where I think they need a comma or have put in a ‘big’ word where it is not need, however the plot has a clever undercurrent to it so I can overlook these things. An indie published book I read before (it was free as well) was not amazingly written, lots of mistakes. But when I stepped back I could see the whole book as a blockbuster movie, I understood it, the plot made sense, the characters were good. So I ignored the errors and enjoyed the book.

So, to conclude, we all want great prose, we all try to edit away mistakes. But if prose is the reason you are reading a book, then I think you have missed the point. People watch films, keep with TV series and read because of entertainment. Us indie authors will try our best to write well, will try our best to hone our craft and minimise mistakes, but it is OK to accept a few if the plot is good, some of us cannot afford professional editors. Basically what I am saying is, seeking the perfect prose is a good thing, but don’t let that destroy the most important thing in your book, the plot!

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The problems with being a hobbyist writer

I have recently had some comments about my writing, both positive and some improvements. This has got me thinking about the plight of being a hobbyist writer i.e. one who works for a living and has a family, so writing becomes an interest more than a career pathway. At some points I have felt like giving up writing, then I remember that I am really only doing this for fun, any success I gain is purely coincidental, or rather good luck. As one person recently said to me, “as long as you enjoy doing it, keep doing it.” This made me realise that I do want to write, but there are three obstacles that I find when try to sell books, or even get people to read my free books. These are…

  1. Time – The biggest issue in all our lives, but for the hobbyist writer time is very, very limited. If I get a couple of hours to write and edit in a week that is fantastic, mostly I have to steal five minutes here and there, often writing on my phone. I have also been trying to promote myself on twitter and facebook, but some days I don’t even manage to check them. I appear to have lots of followers, but when I post or comment I am just shouting into the void. I don’t have that regular contact that allows me to build up a good following. The same goes for this blog, until I started writing my serial novel and updating every week, posts were sporadic, in fact the ones that are not about ‘Islands of Hope’ still are. As for actual stories I am writing, I have so many half-finished projects, or things that are written and awaiting editing. I now have to be very self-disciplined and only work on one or two projects at a time. Some days I just want to get on with writing, but house work, my job, family and other adulting comes first, which leaves me with very little time to do anything. Some would argue I should spend my writing time actually writing rather than doing this blog post!
  2. Editing – The majority of the feedback from my work is, “the story is great, really engaging, but there are a few typos and it could do with a bit more editing.” The problem is, I have spent hours editing everything myself. I really could do with a professional editor to help clean things up, particularly as there are many pitfals I fall into (passive voice, missing commas, disconnecting sentences etc.) However, the cheapest I can find an editor for a 40,000 word novella is about £400, and that is only for line edits. I am a hobbyist writer remember, I don’t have that money. Well I could find it, but I do need to pay for other things, and it is money I won’t see back in sales, so I cannot justify the cost. My wife is an avid sower, and is thinking of trying to sell a few things. She may spend £400 on a new sowing machine, but that is a one off payment for an item that will last a number of years. I would need to pay over £400 per book I write. I just can’t do that, unless I want to be a full time writer, but then again I’m the main bread winner in my house so quiting my job is not an option. The only way I have slightly got around this is by getting an editing program, but as any writer knows, these only help you see where some edits might be and does not necessarily aid with the flow of the writing or eliminate all typos. Maybe I should just continue to put all my stuff up for free on Smashwords. I have to admit, though, that the lure of a print version of a book through Amazon is too big a draw!
  3. Marketing – So, I have a book out, it should have been edited more, there are a few typos, but a lot of people will overlook that because the story is good. Also I go back to books and re-edit and release new versions, so it’s not all bad. So, how do I get sales? How do I get interest? Well, I post blogs as well as use twitter and facebook and, yes, once again, I am shouting to an audience who don’t want to listen (well maybe they are listening and then ignoring me!). I could get some better marketing, pay someone to make a better cover than I can do with my limited Photoshop skills or get a twitter promotion, maybe even go on a blog tour. Wait, that means money again! Money I cannot afford to spend. I tried touting my book through a blog tour by offering bloggers incentives such as retweets, reviews of other’s books, little rewards that cost no money but may increase social media traffic. Once again, no biters, so no blog tour. I even offer free books in return for reviews (if anyone reading this wants one of my books free in return for a review please contact me!) So what do I do now? Continue to shout, continue to hope. It all seems in vain, it all appears as if I will not get any sales, or even reviews on my free work. Maybe I should call it a day!

So there we are, I am despondent at times, frustrated, safe in the knowledge that with a bit more money and a bit more time I could make more of an impact. I don’t have that, so am I failure? I’m not sure. What I do realise is that I love writing, love creating stories. So surely, as my friend put it, I should just keep going, safe in the knowledge that it is all a hobby and that, even if no-one buys my books, I can still say I’m an author.

 

Should we re-edit published novels?

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I have started re-editing ‘World Cup Dreams: Extra Time Edition,’ but is that right?

I have released a few novels, solely editing them due to not having funds to pay for an editor. This is largely due to me being a hobbyist writer and having another full-time job as well as a young family. Despite looking at my novels repeatedly before release and getting the odd beta reader to take a look, I still find silly errors in my work after they are published. I think to myself, ‘how did I miss that? It’s not like I rushed the book out.’ In fact, I feel quite embarrassed when I see them. So surely I should get a proofreading editor at least, well they are a couple of hundred pounds a pop and I won’t see that kind of return on my books so I will lose money. So I thought to myself, ‘why don’t I go back and edit them again?’ Is that fair though? Releasing something then changing it, making people pay twice for the same work, just one piece being shinier and generally better written? But as Leonardo Di Vinci said, “art is never finished, just abandoned.” I don’t want to think of my work as abandoned, I want it to be the best it can be. Even if no one reads my novels, I will still know there are mistakes. Then there is the issue that re-editing takes time out of stuff I am working on now, not to mention that when they were released that was a snapshot of the writer I was then. They sort of show how I have improved or developed.

But then we can look at other medium, especially movies, where you get multiple versions of the same items. Have you seen a movie even if you have not watched the directors cut? Have you truly experienced a film if you have not seen it in the cinema in 3D? Who knows? I certainly don’t want to think of my books being media that you have to consume in multiple forms to really say you have read them. If we think about books like ‘War and Peace,’ have you really read them if you have not read the unabridged versions? I suppose what I am say is, is it about the story or the version you read? Should we, as artists, release something then say that’s it, not tinker with and let the public decide, or should we be constant revising until we are happy? Will we ever be happy?

From my point of view, I am not an author by trade but by hobby, I have not sold lots of copies, I am not making major edits, just adding punctuation and correcting the odd word. It’s not a hard job for me to know that re-editing is the right thing to do, but is it morally right? Would I be doing the same thing if I were top of the bestseller list? Maybe I should just stop worrying about it, maybe I should bite the bullet and pay for an editor. If my hobby was something like coin collecting I would easily spend a couple of hundred pounds in a year wouldn’t I? I suppose one good thing is that if I make the big time and you have an original edit of one of my novels you could make a bit of money on it on ebay!

So, I have noticed that a lot of blog posts end with questions. Maybe to get readers to comment, maybe to feel like they are connecting with others. Anyway, here are mine for today…

  • Do you think authors should keep going back and editing novels, making them closer to what they want?
  • Have you ever gone back and edited a novel after it was published?
  • Have you ever got annoyed when you have read a book then a new edition comes out with more stuff in it?

Right that’s it for this little blog post except to say that if anyone would like to help me edit my novels then I would be grateful. I am going back to ‘World Cup Dreams: Extra Time Edition‘ and ‘A Close Shave with Destiny.‘ If you want to have a quick read and tell me any errors you notice that would be amazing. All I can offer is a free copy of the book(s), a mention in the thanks section of the new versions and possible a blog post or tweet about your work. Thanks for reading.