Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Beware the Crutch

##Please note: This was published on my original blog here on April 17th. This is its new home)

Recently I saw a post on a writer’s forum giving a link to an online tool which allowed the self-published writer to quickly add up their sales figures on their Amazon reports. There were lots of positive replies on the usefulness of the aforementioned online tool, because it meant you no longer had to add the numbers up yourself.

Hang on a minute …?

You need an online tool to add up a string of whole numbers? While I’ve come across a lot of evidence to suggest a brain isn’t always a requirement in the world of self-publishing, in general I’ve found that mine is usually sufficient enough for this task, often with the help of the fingers on one hand, or occasionally both on a good month. And if you’re one of the lucky ones who sells in the kind of numbers that might take more than few seconds to easily calculate, then there’s always that trusty tool known as a calculator. Most computers have them, as, often, do desks, drawers and pockets.

The paragraph above might come across as being a little condescending, but be assured it was meant to be tongue in cheek. However, this online tool is a simple example of a writer’s crutch.

Of these, the self-publishing writer should beware.

I see lots of posts on forums by self-published authors wanting programs to help them do things. “How do I keep track of sales/chapters/characters?” Um … Excel? Or failing that a pen and a piece of paper?

I see a lot of writers talking about a program called Scrivener. I don’t know what that is, but apparently it’s a computer program that organizes the hell out of your novel. Personally I’m happy with an old version of Word and a simple Excel spreadsheet, but even that is a crutch. A computer is a crutch to make life easier for writers who used to write on a typewriter, which was in turn a crutch for a writer who used to use a pen, which was a crutch for carving something on a rock, itself a crutch for your mouth, which was a crutch for your heart, which is where stories truly come from … whatever, you get it.

Just to clarify, I’m not trying to belittle Scrivener or those who use it or any other specialist writing program. I know far better writers than me who swear by it and sooner or later, if it’s as awesome as I’ve heard, I’ll probably be using it myself. However, as a noob starting out on a writing career today who has already decided to start self-publishing as soon as heavenly possible (which is probably too soon) then you could do worse than working with a pen and a pad of paper. Many moons ago that’s what I did. You’ll connect with the words a whole lot better and when you start out that is the only thing that is important.

My point is that you should beware over-reliance on something that makes your job easier. When you’re starting out on the quest to write as well as you can, you shouldn’t concern yourself with how to make it look pretty, or how to organize it neatly. Right at the very, very beginning, you shouldn’t even worry about plot. You should concern yourself with the WORDS AND THE WORDS ONLY, because if your words are awesome all the rest will come together in time.

The biggest crutch I see self-publishers leaning on is the editor/proofreader. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use them because I strongly believe that you should – but knowing that an editor is waiting to correct your crappy grammar or your poor spelling is no excuse for not striving to get your book perfect before it is seen by anyone else. The old analogy that you can’t polish a turd is appropriate here – an editor might be able to round a turd into a more uniform shape so that it appears somewhat more like a mud pie … but it’s still a turd, and shame on you for sending it to them – for leaning on your crutch – in the first place. You should never have let it out of your sight in that condition.

I used to do proofreading on the side, but I gave up because people were sending me the kind of junk I would be embarrassed to allow off my computer and expecting me to fix it up into a quality book that people would want to pay money for. I molded a couple of mud pies, but that was the best I could do. Then, surprise, surprise, aforementioned turds later appear on Amazon with five-star reviews from friends and family and the evil beyond all evil, the paid-for review service. So it looks great, and it sounds great. But what has really happened is that turd has been allowed to get all the way to the reader before it’s been flagged as a turd, but by then it’s too late, your turd is in the hands of someone with the power to smash your sales into smithereens, simply by pointing out in a nicely worded one-star review what you should have realised long before you self-published it that what you have on your hands is nothing more than a turd. All those fake reviews are like a paper umbrella – it’ll protect you from the rain for a while, but sooner or later the rain is going to break through and then you’re going to get drenched. But whatever, it’s each writer’s personal choice. There is a school of thought that self-published writers can “grow up in public” as it were, improving their craft with the public as the ultimate judge. Each to their own, but as a shy, fragile kid who’d been pushed around a bit at school I know without a doubt that had I self-published those novels I wrote at 18 and 19 in the form they existed in then, I would have got deservedly hammered by reviewers, and that would not have been good for me. It would not have been good at all.

But, whatever. Each to their own. Personally I don’t enjoy getting punched in the face, either in real life or on the internet, not until I’ve developed a chin to take it.

It says a lot about a writer who leans on crutches too much. First and foremost a writer is an artist. After he (or she) has created something worth selling he then becomes a businessman. Review that phrase “worth selling”. This is the key. It is your responsibility to produce something worth selling. After you have done that it’s perfectly acceptable to get someone else to give it a shine and then put it into a nice packet ready for sale. But don’t cut corners or those corners will reappear sooner or later to bite you in the ass.

Beware the crutch. We all use them, but know that you’re using them and always strive, where possible, to do without them as much as you can. You’ll be a better writer for it.

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