Friday, June 26, 2015

The One Major Benefit Traditional Publishing Has Self-Publishing Doesn’t


I've had fellow writers admit in casual discussion that they turned to self-publishing because they didn't want to be rejected. I mean, isn’t it the main benefit? Even those who turn to independent publication for other reasons will concede that it's a nice bonus. Who wants to be told, "I don't want your work?"

There's the obvious reason that rejection helps you learn. I won't deny that, but that's not what I'm talking about. I actually think that with the popularity of the internet, the constant barrage of criticism from all walks of life doesn’t always benefit artistic decision, or even my enjoyment of the piece. (Anyone else sick of reading constant, inane complaints about every single one of your favorite movies?) People can be freer and focus on conveying self over marketing when not trying to pander to a gatekeeper’s interpretation of what readers want. In ways, being free of straightforward rejection encourages risk taking and diversity.

For me there is something scarier than rejection, and that is decision making.

Self-publishing grants the writer complete control over everything, which is what many want. But, the consequence of that is you become responsible for every decision—each piece that might make or break your book. Unless you hire someone, and hire well, you really don’t have anyone to curb your insanity. You have to question if that tampon scene is way too much or just what is going to make your book unique and noticeable. Maybe it will pander to a forbidden element of what people want. Or, maybe it’ll just be gross.

I’ve been editing my manuscript for the two years now. I have had every opinion on every inane word, been both sides of every stupid argument, and thoroughly over-analyzed everything that could possibly be over analyze. It’s at a point where I realize I’m just procrastinating. I do love the manuscript (And hate it. You know how it is.) Yet I see some parts that I would like to change. I’ve had many readers with a lot of frustrating, useful, contradicting, enlightening, advice, (mostly frustrating) and I’ve come to feel I have a good understanding of manuscript—qualities, flaws, themes, characters.

I have pretty strong opinions. And I have doubts.

Recently I talked with an author who had worked with me through the process. He asked me if I’d consider writing the whole thing.

Hell no.

Every time you do a rewrite you risk causing new problems. Often the rewrite has less of them, but not only would starting over mean actually doing the work, but I'd have to scrap all of the feedback I’ve gotten, most of it being on execution. My manuscript has had its problems slowly being smoothed out over time, and the unfortunate truth is that the predominant issues are more to do with concept, not the writing. The actual flow, characterization, and dramatic arc are the best features of the book - it’s the pitch-worthiness of the plot and the original punch that is lacking. I’m trying to publish a dystopian novel at the end of the fad, a story where I considered the setting a background, not a plot point. The ingredients are new, but there really isn’t that big vision that makes you go, “I’ve never read a book like this before!”

It would make more sense to write a different story than to start over. Changing the words won’t do much.

Also, I don’t believe it needs it. The last half of the book is successful—if a reader can get passed two main hiccups, they blitz through the rest of it. I know, having read it myself, where the problems are, and where they're not. The manuscript, save for some bumps, is in pretty good shape.

But it did get me thinking. Yes, the second half of the manuscript is far better than the first. By that point the readers know the characters, the world, and the stakes, the confusion is gone, and they are connected and invested. But getting them to that point has proven difficult.

There have been a lot of complaints about my prologue. Betas complain of feeling overwhelmed.

“I’m confused,” they say.

“Which parts confused you specifically?”

“I don’t know.”

I’ve had a few people sit down with a highlighter to mark the places where they started to get lost. They admitted they did understand everything I was saying… but they were still confused.

Being overwhelmed is my interpretation. After some time, I decide they had a hard time compartmentalizing the images given to them. They had so many questions and were uncertain on what they needed to keep track of and how to keep track of them. Things I thought were just details they'd skip, they believed were relevant and couldn't stop asking questions about it. Questions they were supposed to ask, but ones that perturbed them beyond expectation.

In one draft, I had the main character walk into a hut, bending under the broken door frame and stepping over a “stripped engine.” He proceeded to focus on his brother bleeding at the other side of the room, and the engine was never mentioned again.

The stripped engine was, yes, foreshadowing, of his somewhat “superpower.” He had taken it apart to use for scraps. It also gave an immediate illustration of the kind of technology that was in this world.

“What’s with the stripped engine?” they’d ask. Some would outright say it wasn’t necessary.

It was one of the more common criticisms I’d gotten, and yet it was extremely successful in what it was supposed to do. Add in the fact that I still don’t fully understand why people were so bothered by it, and you can see my conflicting emotions. While being told I needed to build the world faster, people were rejecting any details intended to do just that. This actually suggested the problem - they didn't understand the world well enough that these details just confused them more.

The prologue can’t just be removed. I’ve tried. For a while, so sick of hearing, “But I thought you weren’t supposed to have prologues,” I just gave out the first three chapters without it. I was still intending on using it—or finding a way to include parts of it—when the majority of the comments from people (including agents) proved that the prologue’s story and positioning was necessary. The information in it is integral to the story, even though it isn’t immediately obvious. I’ve tried moving it, but the only places I’ve found are far too late to introduce the information. Plus, the first few chapters are located in a portion of the world that is the “exception,” and not a good indication of the setting the reader will be in for the majority of the book. The prologue is a demonstration of the sort of world you will be exposed to.

And it does exactly what it is meant to. People are curious about what happened to the protagonist’s brother and how the story relates. The problem really isn’t with the prologue itself, but that the reset of the first chapter (eight years later), requires them to become reinvested.

I feel strongly about the prologue because I like it. Being the sort of person with a wide diversity of feelings towards my work and enough practice to recognize (partially) ego and bullshit, I take my own viewpoint very seriously. Also, a bit part of me feels like the criticism comes from people being too oriented about the rules: “Don’t use prologues because they tend to suck,” and not having faith in me: “I don’t know if you’re ever going to explain this, being that this is just a manuscript and you’re an unknown author.” (I do.)

But the kicker is that, for whatever reasons, it isn’t working. And while I like it, I know that there’s a possibility of doing even better.

So while I adamantly rejected the idea of rewriting the whole thing, I did begin to question, “Should I rewrite the first fifty pages?”

I’ve done it before, and I liked the results. I am far more aware now of the reader’s problems that I probably could recraft the beginning and solve the myriad of diverse complaints. More to the point, it would be easier to reshape the book’s prologue into a part of the beginning if I were to change everything.

But do I want to?

I’ve been working on this for years. I’ve written over 13 novels, and I’ve only tried to publish once (five letters sent out) I’ve been redoing it over and over. At times I catch myself changing things merely for the sake of changing things. Would a rewrite I don’t fully believe in be beneficial, or is it just me procrastinating? Truth is, the rewrite would be easier than being precise about the problem. It might make the bigger problems more minor, but include other issues that would then need to be solved. For something that actually might not be any better than the first, it seems risky.

I have written books that gripped betas immediately, that they actually begged me to read the whole thing, and still very similar complaints. “I want everything explained now.” I know Hunger Games is criticized for “expecting the audience to immediately know the world,” which is something I don’t agree with. I know that many readers complain about something when it is really what they need—and not having all the answers right away is one is an important method of frustrating the audience long enough to keep them around. (This can go too far and backfire, however, so of course I have to question if that’s what is happening?)

This was a hard and frustrating thought for me, and something I’ve kind of been considering for a while now.  But recently I realized something: I am not self-publishing. (Yet.)

Though I want the book to be good enough to be picked up, and am willing to do the work by myself, I have the benefit of other people making decisions for me. If I send it out and get rejected—even without hearing a word as to why—I’ve learned something. While there aren’t unlimited number of them out in the world, I can always submit and rewrite later. If things go well, I’ll get asked for a rewrite, or even better, I’ll get picked up and then go through a series of edits.

Even though I am struggling with the decision because I don’t want rejection, rejection actually gives me freedom. I can take the risk of trusting my gut and yet still have the opportunity to “fix” my book if it needs it. An agent’s rejection might not mean anything, but it can give an author time and more understanding if her book works or not.

For my first round of submissions, the beginning primarily as it is. Until I am rejected, I don’t need to risk a whole rewrite.