21 tips for self-publishing without an editor, for posterity, and yes, “maybe don’t do it” is on the list
I don’t know when it was exactly, but at some point last year I decided I was going to start self-publishing a bunch of books. Short story anthologies, novels, chapbooks, etc. At some point after that I decided one of the books would be a collection of a bunch of my longer and weirder horror things, old and new, and things that would fit more into traditional ghost or fairy tales as well as a splash of psychological and body horror. At some point after that, I thought I had enough of the book together to work on it exclusively, and so I’ve been working on this thing the most out of any of my writing projects.
To give you an idea you how far off I was while planning this book, I thought it would be easy enough to have it exist by Halloween of 2016. It’s now June 27th, 2017. The official release date was May 31st. This article is a post-mortem, or a retro, of things I learned while attempting to publish this book.
I think if I didn’t have a list of things I learned from doing this project, I’d have failed, even if superficially the book ended up being all right. And while I might have driven myself crazy second-guessing and rewriting, I ended up with a better book than I would have otherwise.
Okay here are those tips
- Maybe don’t do it? This is an ambitious project. You might be ambitious, like I was, and strive for putting into someone’s hands something that feels like a real book, a book with more heft than a chapbook. But remember — every extra page of a story makes your story harder to maintain and iterate on over time. Every extra story in your book makes your book that much harder to finish. I put 14 stories in my book, and some of them are long. Maybe that was a bad idea.
- Wait on proofs until they’re absolutely necessary. Print on demand is tempting and addictive, because it’s so easy to click and create, but don’t order proofs until you’ve sat down to edit more than once and found nothing to improve. Seriously. If you’re doing it right, you won’t be ready to order proofs for a very long time (and I’ve been editing some of the stories in this book for a decade!). I have so many obsolete versions of An Evening of Blue and Other Grim Yarns lying around and that I’ve had to rip apart (which is actually more depressing than fun) and if I could iterate on one thing in the process it would be to change the rules about how often and under what circumstances I’d order a proof or series of proofs.
- One at a time. Never order more than one proof per iteration until you’re sure the project is done. Being overconfident about the state of things and ordering large numbers of books prematurely was where I sank most of my budget for this project. I’ll have to sell a lot of books if I want to make that money back, (although admittedly I didn’t do this project for the money. I did it to see if I could). If you’re ordering two, because you think someone will help you edit, no, reduce the quantity back to one. We’ve talked about this. Nobody is going to help you edit.
- Version control your writing. It’s important. It lets you keep track of what you worked on and lets you treat your prose like code. I used Github and Ulysses to make sure that my writing was synced up and snapshotted to my heart’s desire. Even then, merge conflicts and iCloud login issues sometimes got the best of me. I’ll make a Medium post about the tools I used to help me build this book at some point, don’t let me forget.
- Edit out loud. The best way I’ve found to edit my stories is to read them aloud to myself. Don’t flip through, like a phone book, looking for typos. You’re not going to get a sense of the flow of the stories that way, only the physical sense of the words that make up the stories. Act out your stories, see what works and find places that are slow or that don’t actually contribute to the picture the reader is getting. You’ll also catch lies, inconsistencies in your narration. Rewrite.
- Create a list of your bad habits. If you don’t already have one, make a list of bad habits in your writing, and root them out. Things that would annoy you if you read them in someone else’s writing. Like using the word “that” all the time in situations where it could be omitted. I have a personal style guide that I reference while editing my writing, and I think every writer would benefit from having something similar.
- New changes require new editing — maybe it’s nice to willy nilly change a character’s gender, or temporary moniker, unless if you forget to change it everywhere else. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I’d improved something only to find that I’d actually made it worse (and ordered books with the worse change).
- Quotation marks suck. This is probably unique to my experience because of the tools I was using, but I wasted so much time trying to get straight quotations to be curly, to get curly ones to be facing the right way. Either I need to write a script that fixes backwards quotation marks, or I need to Google the right thing at some point. I haven’t done either of those things. There are probably backwards quotation marks still somewhere in my book. If you find one, don’t tell me.
- Ask yourself questions as you read. Does this make sense? Am I being consistent? Does it feel real, or plausible, or like something that could conceivably happen? Is it fun or funny? If it’s campy, is it self-aware? Is the reader confused or left behind? Am I saying enough to give the reader the same picture I have in my head? Am I being considerate about the mental real estate I’m taking up?
- Clean up the reader’s mental inventory. Are there frivolous details that open loops in the reader’s mind that you never close? Delete them. Delete paragraphs if they get in the way of what’s happening in the story, or how natural a scene feels. Remove throwaway lines that pepper in unnecessary information. Clean up your code.
- Ask people to read and respond to certain stories from the book (don’t give them a whole book — they’ll never open it) and tell you what it makes them think of, or what they were excited by. Give different people different stories. Ask for the kind of feedback that will make you want to work on the story, not for superficial edits.
- Most importantly, have you read your own book? Like, have you actually read it? My guess is that at this point you think you have, but maybe I should guess again. If you’ve been avoiding reading your own book, because your ego says it’s good already…well, sheesh. We all hope your ego’s right, but we’ve all read books and stories that could have done with a bit more love and polish.
- Think about having your book on someone’s shelf, with mistakes in it. Think about not being able to be proud of your own work, because you didn’t spend enough time making sure it was all good when you had the time to do that. Thoughts like this were my biggest motivators throughout this project.
- Hack apart long paragraphs. Your book is a garden and long paragraphs are vines and boulders you should split apart and look beneath. That’s where run-on sentences with confusing syntax like to hide. Rewrite what doesn’t make sense and put it back, or maybe it works better how it is now, split into smaller paragraphs.
- Announce a book launch date that makes sense, and don’t do it on a whim. I thought I was ready, thought I’d edited enough, made everything good enough, and gave myself and my readers a 3 week window for pre-ordering. 3 weeks seemed like a lot of time. At going on 6 weeks (2 after release), I still didn’t have final versions of my book and I had to delay the book for people who’d bought it.
- Read your stories over and ask yourself questions. Have you written a story that’s fun, if nothing else? Are the characters relatable? Are they wooden? Do you fulfill your promise to the reader to keep them engaged throughout the story and to give them something to think about afterwards? Do these stories fit the theme of the book? Also: do you like the story, or know why you want the reader to like it?
- Spot check your PDF output — zoom in, look at each page. See it how the reader will see it. Step into your audience’s shoes. Words sit differently on the page, so often you’ll be able to spot things on the page that you’d never have noticed in a word processor. Get used to doing this.
- Know what grammar rules you’re breaking, and why. Copy your stories into tools like Hemingway or run them through write-good (an npm package) for grammatical suggestions, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is all you have to do. Be wary of anything that makes you more confident — confidence is what will sink you at the point of no return.
- Have a release mindset. Be continuously critical of the words, sentences and paragraphs you see in front of you. Is what’s going to be printed on these pages good enough to be on a shelf? To be reread after a time? If not, why not? What can you do to help it get there? What do you still have to think about?
- Okay, order the book. Then read through it, find something you never saw before, change that, then order more books.
- Let go. At some point, you have to put a pin in it. You have to say “That’s it. That’s the published version of the book.” You have to be okay with it. Even if it’s not perfect. It’s not. But it’s in readers’ hands now, and out of yours. You can’t do anything about that. This is something every author has to go through, whether they’re publishing traditionally or on their own. At some point the book is done. And if you didn’t want to make a book in the first place, what the heck?
That’s it. Those are the tips.