Writer Beware

Posted: August 21, 2015 in Regarding writing
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cat-on-typewriter

Kitty’s Proofing Service wasn’t all it appeared…

It’s been a while since I blogged about writing so I thought I’d correct that error with a little commentary on those who make money from writing.

No I don’t mean writers, silly. And no I don’t mean publishers or book shop owners or anyone like that.

No I mean those who make money on the back of selling the writing dream. The internet is awash with people who will teach you how to write that bestselling novel, or who promise to critique your work or edit and proofread it before you send it off to a publisher. Some will even publish you themselves.

None of these services come free of course.

Now I’m sure there are decent people out there who really can help you to become a better writer, I just suspect there are an awful lot of people who’ve just seen a niche in the market and are after a quick buck, and don’t even feel the need to provide a decent product in return.

Now me, well I’ve always been of the opinion that the best way to learn how to write a novel is by reading a lot of novels, dissecting them to see how the narrative structure works, how characters evolve and plot is developed. This process doesn’t even need to cost you a penny if you have a library card.

Now I’ve bought the odd book on writing it’s true, but a decent book on writing might cost you £10 (or it might even be free from the library) which is a lot different to paying £100 or more for an online course, and usually these books are written by people who are actually quite successful writers in their own right (or should that be write?). Two of my favourites are by Lawrence Block and Stephen King. This is a lot different than signing up for a course run by Betty Rubenstein whose main claim to fame is that she once had a poem published in the St Jude’s parish magazine…

Similarly there are those who’ll offer to critique your work, sometimes this is a standalone service but sometimes it’s linked to a submission call and I’ve seen examples of that. If it’s free to submit a story but you can request a critique for a nominal amount and you feel this would be useful, then by all means go for it, but realistically if you want your work critiqued you might be just as well joining a writers group, likeminded people who’ll happily take a look at your work and offer constructive criticism for the cost of you returning the favour.

This brings me on to those submission calls which charge a fee. I remember when I started out writing stories and, pitifully naïve as I was, I did pay a couple of £5 fees to submit stories to competitions, but with hindsight I think it’s a lousy thing to do. I appreciate that an indie publisher needs to afford to publish a book, but frankly in this age of print on demand firms and eBooks there can’t be nearly as many overheads as their once were. Don’t get me wrong here; I’m not (and never would) having a go at indie publishers who pay a token amount and/or a contributors copy, or even those in the ‘For the Love’ category, most of these provide a great outlet for writers, especially those just starting out, which doesn’t mean they take any old guff—far from it they still have standards—and there’s something to be said for holding a book you’ve contributed to in your hands, it’s a wonderful motivation, and as I’ve often said, it’s better for a story to be out there being read than languishing on my hard drive.

But paying for the privilege of just being considered? Nah, steer clear.

Next up are the companies (or I suspect more likely individuals) offering to edit/proof your work. Now I have friends who are professional editors, some of whom are employed by publishers some of whom work for themselves, and they do a great job, its hard work and such work does not come cheap, and usually they work for big clients (as in actual companies I’m not suggesting there are giants who pen novellas in between collecting golden eggs or anything). I’m not talking about the likes of these editors, but I’ve seen people advertise their services to proof or edit your fiction, to help you smooth the rough edges off a story and get it in a good position to send off to a publisher.

One of these individuals had a website advertising their wares many years ago, and I found several typos in it. If you’re going to offer that kind of a service failings like that speak volumes. Now my editing isn’t perfect, my grammar’s getting better (but she still isn’t out of the wood yet, boom boom…cough, sorry) and I proof things more times than I ever used to, but mistakes do get made (I once famously had a character throw his shirt on the floor, only I missed the ‘R’ out…) but that said I’m not setting myself up as someone who’ll edit your work for a price.

I think so long as you’ve shown due diligence, and you’ve gone through your work multiple times to iron out any errors, then publishers will be forgiving of the rare typo (especially when it’s the kind that won’t be picked up by Word). Invest in a book on grammar if you’re concerned, or take an evening class. Or if it’s more about polishing the work, well we’re back to a writing group again.

The final people to talk about are the ones who’ve been around for ages, and in many respects the most villainous of all: The Vanity Publisher!

Now once more, before you accuse me of hypocrisy, there’s nothing wrong, per se, with seizing the initiative and getting your own work out there, and obviously I’ve done that myself, but nowadays this can be done at no cost to yourself. Print on demand companies like Lulu, or the ability to self-publish electronically, think Amazon, mean there’s no place for the company who will print you off a few hundred books, for a price.

Over the years I suspect many an aspiring writer sent their manuscript off to what appeared to be a perfectly respectable publisher only to get a letter or an email back explaining that they loved the book, and they’d be honoured to publish it, of course they’d need some capital to authorise the print run, but that’s just a formality…

At best people possibly did get boxes of their books, and maybe over the years they managed to sell them off and break even, but I fear many people didn’t even get the books. At the end of the day there’s little difference between some vanity publishers and the friendly Nigerian who says he wants to offer you £6,000,000, only he needs a few hundred up front to prove you’re serious about the whole endeavour. Both are scams, just different kinds, one preys on people greed, the other preys on people’s ego and desire to see their work in print.

As the old adage goes, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. But don’t just take my word for it, check out the absolute write forums, they have a whole thread dedicated to the literary ne’er-do-wells.

Writers have to be self-aware enough to take on board criticism, to even seek it out and to learn from it in order to develop as an artist, and as I said I’m sure there are people out there who can help you become a better writer, you just need to be very careful about who you choose to help you, and what their motives are. I’m a capitalist at the end of the day, and there’s nothing wrong with people selling a service, but if you’re going to partake of that service just be damn sure you’re getting your money’s worth.

Me, I want to make money from writing, but I want to make money through selling my stories rather than from my fellow writers, which is why any writing advice in this blog—which is hopefully useful to some people—will always remain free.

Call it literary karma.

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