Long answer below. Short answer: You probably don’t, and that’s okay.
When you’re going the indie route, you don’t have an agent reading your work and deciding it’s worthy of their time. You don’t have a publisher bidding for your book. You don’t have a team of people validating your decision to write the story you’ve written, or approving the quality of your work.
You are, in this respect, alone.
But never lonely! So many people have trodden this path before us and if there’s one thing you can count on with authors it’s that they LOVE to share their experiences. Which is good news for us newbies!
I don’t actually claim to know any answers here, guys. I’m exploring this with you. But I am reading and researching and absorbing everything I bloody can, and by jove I’m starting to understand a few things. I’ve been jumping on and off the fence about publishing my first novel, Tilted, later this year and I’m tired of all the jumping. I’m tired, and like every other sodding Brit right now (for different reasons) I just want to know one thing: am I in or am I out?
Putting our totally normal and human insecurities and self-doubts aside, there seem to be four key questions any wannabe indie publisher should ask themselves before making the decision to go go go. But first, ask yourself:
Is it obvious you’re self-published?
Because if it is, then you’re probably not ready. Is your formatting shonky? Is your cover done in MS Word (and if your title is in Comic Sans then NO. BAD WRITER!) or very obviously home-made? Does your story actually work or is it full of plot-holes? Is your writing polished and accurate? It’s unlikely you won’t know the answer to any of these but if you don’t, then chances are you’re not ready yet. Research the market. Read and learn from other indie authors. Get eyes on the project. And not your mum/spouse/best friend’s eyes: impartial ones.
1. Is your story ready?
The question isn’t ‘is it perfect’, but is it ready. It will never be perfect. The story idea might be perfect, the hook impeccable, the characterisation sublime – but there’s simply no such thing as a perfect story. It’s too subjective and too abstract, and there’s freedom in that. What started out in your head felt mind-blowing, ground-breaking, akin to a spiritual revelation, possibly – but getting it out of your imagination and into something as restrictive as language is really, really tough. The thing you felt and the thing you read will never be the same, but it doesn’t mean that the finished product isn’t absolutely worthy of being published. And once it is published, it has a chance of finding its way into the hands of the one or two readers out there who actually will think it’s perfect.
So how can you tell if your story is ready?
– Do other people like it?
– Are plots tied together?
– Does it have a satisfying beginning, middle and end?
Readers are crucial – beta readers, critical partners, editors, friends, family, colleagues—whatever. Just get your story in front of people and beg them to be kindly honest. Don’t just say ‘do you like it?’ Ask them if it made sense, if it flowed, if it dragged, if characters were logical and believable, if anything confused them, if they wanted to stay up all night reading it or could quite happily go several weeks between chapters… (that’s always a red-flag for me, though as most of my beta readers are working mothers it’s not exactly conclusive…or so I tell myself).
A developmental edit – while pricey – will really help with this, but my advice to those starting out is to start with beta reads, then progress to a professional beta read when you’ve taken on feedback and made obvious changes. This is usually a lot cheaper than a full developmental edit and will give you a good, overarching sense of whether or not the story works, and if not why not. Then you can decide whether you need professional help or can go (almost) the rest of the way on your own.
Takeaway – your story doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does need to be a complete and compelling story.
2. Is your writing good enough?
Again, ask your readers. I remember my first ever reader – my dad – telling me in surprise, ‘it was so beautifully written!’ Looking back at that draft, it was gauche and clichéd and in need of serious editing—but that comment gave me the confidence that my writing had the potential to be beautiful.
I really believe you need an editor, though. Or at least someone who can perform the role of an editor, and I sense that it’s not as easy as it looks. I pride myself on my writing skills, and have even trained as a copywriter to really improve myself – but I’m still making basic errors and creating tangled sentences all the time. Sometimes I spot them, but mostly I don’t because you can only read your own work so many times before you just stop connecting with it. So pay as much as you can afford to get the best editor for your project.
And to be clear – you don’t have to be bloody Dostoyevsky. I maintain that Fifty Shades of Grey is one of the most annoyingly-written books I’ve ever read, but I’ve still read it at least twice because something about the story and characters unexpectedly grabbed me. And the woman knows how to pace a novel, fo’ sho’.
Of course a novel will survive the writing not being devastatingly profound and heart-piercingly astute – but it does need to be accessible and clear.
Takeaway – grammar, spelling and sentence structure are the bare minimum – make sure your writing is enjoyable (only readers can tell you, and ideally ones you don’t know) and if you can get a pro to hone it, all the better.
That’s the technical side of things; in Part Two, I’ll dig into the mindset stuff. Are you ready to handle the reviews? Can you live with yourself if you chicken out of hitting publish?
Until next time, players.