Sunday, March 27, 2011

Writing a book: How hard can it be?

With all the discussion about e-books and self-publishing going on, I’ve started to think about assumptions that people make about writing, namely that writing is easy. Several people have told me that since I love to read books so much, I should write my own. After all, I know what I like to read, so I should be able to write something I would love to read. As flattering as the idea is, quite frankly it sounds like a ton of work to me! Writing is NOT easy, and good writing is even harder. I’m just not sure everyone’s aware of how difficult it can be.
For example, in an earlier post I mentioned teaser chapters and described some of my favorites. For a teaser chapter to be successful, an author has to have already thought out at the very least the basics of the plot for the upcoming novel, and written and revised a chapter from that novel. Sometimes the teaser is the very first chapter of the novel, which has to be one of the hardest parts of the book to write. Just think back to school when you had to write papers: wasn’t the introduction the most difficult part of the paper? In fact, I often tell my students to write an intro, write the paper, then go back, toss out the intro you began with, look at the body of the paper, and re-write the intro. The reason for this is that often in the process of writing, we discover new ideas and what we started out with is nothing like the finished product. A good first chapter of a novel has to accomplish a lot. The author has to capture our interest immediately, set up the story, and create a character. In a great book, this character will develop throughout the novel, and sometimes the best books have characters who take on lives of their own. But the basis for that character has to be there from the beginning, and sometimes in the process of writing, a character changes, which requires revising earlier chapters. So for an author to include the first chapter of a novel in a previously published book implies that all this time and effort she put into creating the novel has already taken place. Quite frankly, there’s a good reason books, paintings, and music are referred to as “works of art.” Writing is hard work.
In another previous post I mentioned a few thoughts on the difficulties of writing a series. There are two possible ways of constructing a series: planning out the entire series beforehand a la J.K. Rowling and developing a series as you go along. I am in awe of anyone who plots out a series in advance, because I’m just not that organized, nor am I creative enough to establish new, fictional worlds and know how my characters will act and react within those worlds. I would have to develop a series as I went along, perhaps choosing secondary characters who interest me in the process of writing the first novel and then exploring that character. And I suspect that this is what happens with many new authors, although when pitching a novel to a publisher, I’m sure that discussing how a series could come from that first novel would be wise. Either way, a great deal of thought has to go into creating a series and maintaining it – both of which require hard work.
This leads me back to my first paragraph and how the discussion of e-books and self-publishing prompted this post. Romance author Connie Brockway announced on Friday on the All About Romance blog that she will be self-publishing her books from now on. I haven’t read Ms. Brockway’s novels, but I see her books in all the bookstores and wholesalers, so she clearly has achieved quite the degree of success. She mentions several reasons for leaving the legacy publishers (legacy publishers = big name publishing houses). She states that she wants to write several sequels that the publishers weren’t interested in and feature different locales in her novels. What I find most intriguing about her comments is that she says that the publishers are now requiring authors to take up much of their own publicity through social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and blogs.
In the past, the reason for going with a publisher was that the publisher would take care of the editing, publicity, distribution, and cover art. With the success of social media, computers, and e-readers, authors can now do all of this themselves. Ms. Brockway mentions a fascinating discussion between Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath about Mr. Eisler’s decision to leave legacy publishing and self-publish. Mr. Eisler has a lot of good reasons to do so, namely his desire to control prices on his backlist and improve speed of delivery to his readers. However, I’m not sure how realistic his and Ms. Brockway’s expectations are.
My question is why would you want to do all this for yourself? My sister and I discussed this last night, and she compared self-publishing to renovating your house. You could hire a contractor to do everything for you, or you could save money by doing the renovations yourself. Of course, if you do the renovations yourself, you will invariably end up spending more time, because you will have to find individual plumbers, carpenters, etc. to do the work and/or learn to do all of it yourself. Similarly, self-publishing requires you to do all the work yourself. If you want to publish a good final product, you MUST find a good editor and spend a lot of time drumming up interest for your work. All of this then takes time away from what the artist should be focusing on: her writing.
Amanda Hocking is a famous example of one of the rare self-published authors who has been successful. I find it really telling that she has just signed a deal with St. Martin’s Press to publish her books. Here’s her blog post in which she defends her decision: Amanda Hocking blog.
Ms. Hocking and Mr. Konrath have both experienced commercial success through self-publishing. But the truth is that they are very rare examples. Writing is really hard work, and the ease of self-publishing an e-book does not ensure a quality product. In fact, I would argue the opposite. I think good writing is a process, and the advantage of going with a legacy publisher is that you have to go through editors to get published. When I compare some of the 99 cent novels I’ve read on Amazon with some of the books published through the big name publishing houses, it is clear that the latter is a superior product.
Both Connie Brockway and Barry Eisler are established authors who have decided to leave legacy publishers and go the self-publishing route. I’m intrigued go see how successful they will be and if the quality of their writing suffers. I suspect that it won’t, at least initially, because they have made their decisions so public and readers will be scrutinizing their future work. However, I’m not sure that new authors will have as much success with self-publishing, because new authors are the ones who need time to hone their craft. Either way, all of this discussion leads me to believe that the publishing industry is headed for some drastic changes, which is exciting!

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