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Ingrained in running a review blog that accepts all submissions, from all genres, from all levels of writers, is the acceptance that some manuscripts sent to our inbox will have typos, sentences without periods that never seem to end, or names that morph over the course of the story. It is a given that reading through thousands of pages, you will find errors and mistakes, whether due to grammar, format, or even the occasional missing page. As a reviewer, few of these small, common errors deter from the story.
Instead, plot lines that emerge strongly and run into the ground, disappearing without closure, characters whose dialogue changes (whether by accent or the essence of their personality), and cases of anemic story lines are the true detractors when reading self-published literature.
These errors show a departure from the writing process, from the painful molding, sculpting and close-shaving that every writer must endure to create a finished product. Just like traditional literature, most of the self-published works have very few typos. They have few grammatical errors. Commas, semi-colons and periods are all perfectly arranged. Instead of being plagued with typos, self-published works are often a tribute to the careful pruning and dedicated review that authors give to their own work, and the patience and generous time that each author gives to their work.
But underneath the final touches, the final swipes of a keypad, are months of thematic development, character sculpting, and an inherent understanding of the plot, from first words to the final pages. An idea must be fleshed out, salted, put through the wringer, cleansed, and digested to create an illuminating piece of literature. Characters must live and breath on their own in self-published literature- outside of the realm of the writer’s reputation or the author’s best intentions.
Thus, here are the most common concerns spotted in self-published literature, and some suggestions to avoid them:
1. The problem: Plot development beings strong, and then turns stagnant.
Literature needs to hold the reader. The level of interest attained in the first few pages must endure enough throughout the story for a reader to continue to pursue the next pages. A novel cannot have an explosive beginning before slinking away to muted dialogue and philosophical observation until the last explosive page. Instead, plot development needs to be ingrained into dialogue, character interaction, scene and theme. Change is intriguing. The most interesting man in the world is only interesting because he has changed himself through adventure and exploits which never end. The solution? Create a plot map. Include all characters, major and minor, changes in location. Go beyond the classic step bar graph:
(Anything that takes you five minutes to make is not in-depth enough to represent the quality and breadth of a full-length, developed manuscript)
Instead, try writing out character time lines and plot lines. Use different colors. Use shapes. Think creatively. Give enough time to this part of the process that you would feel confident explaining your story using your plot chart as a guide.
Here are some examples. What is intuitive to one person will not be intuitive to another. Explore your writing style through these visual guides. Look at your writing as evolving as art- with many layers of paint, grime, and sweat.
http://appylon.deviantart.com/art/Color-Script-398325611 (this is a “color script” showing major plot arcs. No words, just visual imagery)
http://i.imgur.com/Molgo.png (a plot map that combines character’s stories with graphical representation)
2. The problem: syntactical and grammatical errors abound.
While a few typos aren’t enough to deter most readers, glaring mistakes (including misspellings of cities and names) are. Your manuscript should be polished. Mistakes like “to” and “too” detract from the quality and readability of your work. The solution? Read it. It sounds obvious, but the exhaustion and joy after finishing your initial piece can lead to oversight of simple errors. Fixing these problems will be labor-intensive if you don’t want to invest in an editor. The most effective solution is old-fashioned. Print it. Mark up your copy. Look at common grammatical errors. Don’t read for content, just for spelling. Read like your high school freshman English teacher. Not for idea development or plot, just for the nuts and bolts of grammar, word order, word choice, and punctuation. After this, read it aloud. Reading aloud helps to find those places that just don’t sound right, whether it’s a run-on sentence, or an awkward thought. Add these edits to your manuscript.
3. The problem: Original thoughts reading like fan-fiction.
One of Chomsky’s principles of language is recursion. We can add to sentences forever. We can expand them. We have clauses, contractions, commas, hyphens, semi-colons, we have all these tools to introduce fresh sentences, new thoughts, and beautiful language to our literature. So why don’t we? A common trip-up of self-published work is the reliance on cliches. Original thoughts become dulled when writers rely on old expressions to convey meaning. When conveying brand new ideas and thoughts, using these old cliches does not serve to add clarity, but rather dilutes the meaning and power of words. Instead of relying on age-old adages, reinvent your word choice and writing to reflect your voice.
Don’t write to reiterate. Write to stand out. Extract the essence of the style of your favorite author – not their words. Dan Brown is famous for his carefully structured novels. The same elements of his story fall within the same number of pages in many of his works. He is a formulaic writer, with a technique honed and developed over Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code. Admire his careful structuring, and adopt the essence of this technique, the careful laying of the plot and timely development. Do not copy the ratios of pages he uses for his books. Don’t begin your denouement on page 313 because Dan Brown does.
Avoid fan fiction writing. Don’t adopt characters and put them in new settings. Invent your own characters, their passions and feelings, and write without the archetypes or cliches that have already been developed. The most exciting stories are not copied. They are eked out.
The solution? Work with inspiration, not with rules. Approach your writing with the passion of your literary heroes, but without their formulas. Ask yourself what makes your character different. When you describe your characters, plot or setting, do you describe them as a comparison to another work? Why? What sets your manuscript apart from these sources of inspiration? Don’t be a fan, create your own fiction. You’ll find it to be more powerful and more rewarding than cut and copies of old works.
Self-publishing offers a break from the traditional. It’s an opportunity to explore ideas and be true to your identity as a writer. It’s also a relatively new field that holds traps and pitfalls, including the ones listed above. Creating a new and original idea is an on-going process, one that may stumble and trip, but which is always recoverable. What are other pitfalls of self-published works that you’ve noticed?