Last week, I caused a little stir on my personal blog with "I ain't your beta reader." I firmly believe that a person's best work needs to be put forward when they self-publish with a price tag attached. Now, if a product is free, I figure all bets are off. After all, you've giving it away. It's when you ask for someone's money that I feel quality needs to be at the forefront.
I worked as a slush reader for a small Canadian publisher, as well as for a speculative fiction magazine. I've seen a lot of different submissions, from funny short stories to epic sword and sorcery tomes. Why did so many get the no vote from me? Simply put, they are boring.
The largest issue I see with new writers is that they don't understand that editing means a lot more than just typos and removing excess words. When people are told they need to edit their work, they check for typos. When told they need to tighten their writing, they do the 10% rule (remove 10% of the overall word count) or do the one-word-a-line method (removing one word per line on the screen). Those do help, but they don't address the underlying issues of plot holes, dull dialogue, boring characters, and non-existent setting.
At this point, many writers intent on self-publishing (or, already have and can't figure out why they aren't selling) get frustrated and throw up their hands. "I know I have these problems, I don't know how to fix them, and I can't afford an editor!" There's still hope for you to get your manuscript in better shape.
- Read two writing books. You need a beginner one to teach you writing basics, and one to help you with editing. I recommend "Edit Your Book in a Month" by Eliza Knight and "You Can Write a Novel" by James V. Smith, Jr. I also recommend reading this blog by post Ilona Andrews, which explains the concept of Show not Tell better than any resource on the internet today.
These books won't teach you everything, nor will they explain why things are the way they are (i.e. why "had" isn't a bad word when writing past perfect...and what the hell is past perfect?!?!), but they will get you a good distance.
- Find a writing group. This can be as small or as big as you need. What's important is that none of these people are related to you or your friend in any way, shape, or form. Many people say that they've ran manuscripts by friends and family, who loved their story. Families and friends are notorious for saying this. We all like to think our family is telling us the truth, but they generally aren't. Assume yours is protecting your feelings.
A writing group can help identify your weak areas. It's helpful to get one that is around your own skill level. Online groups work well for this to start with. You build up friendships and networks and eventually can graduate away from needing a lot of feedback and just trusting one or two people.
- Find a beta reader. After a while, you won't need a group to help you with your work. If you work to address your manuscript's issues, you'll quickly find that a group critique no longer works for you. Instead, one to two sets of eyes will be more than enough. This should be someone around your skill level, so that you can reciprocate critiques on their manuscripts.
- Exchange services for an edit. Perhaps another friend is going to self-publish, so exchange editing services with each other. You won't catch everything, but it will help ensure a cleaner manuscript.
- Hire a proofreader. A full editor is a lot more money than a proofreader. If you've taken the steps above, you will have a cleaner manuscript than when you first starter. A proofreader is usually half the price of a content editor, but they can still help with a lot of your grammar challenges. I personally use Faith at Have Faith Proofreading.
A proofreader will not comment on your pacing, character, and plot issues, but they will get rid of the typos, grammar issues, and those other issues that can kill a manuscript right out of the gate.
Also, there is always the publishing industry itself. It is difficult to get published. However, if you can't afford an editor or a proofreader, can't seem to mesh with a writing group, and have read all of the books, perhaps try submitting a few short stories out to magazines and ezines. (A great list can be found on Duotrope).
Many give personal rejections, so you can get some feedback as to what's wrong. Many times, you'll sell your story, make a little cash, and get your rights back to self-publish it later on (sometimes, the same year...sometimes, right away).
Publishing isn't easy. While places like Smashwords and Amazon makes it easy to press "publish" these days, that doesn't actually make the process any less easy. To be taken seriously, you still need to put your best work forward.