There are more opportunities for writers to get published today than ever before. Independent presses are proliferating, which gives authors many new places to send submissions (that’s what I did — chose a small independent publisher). Writers can post their work on a blog for people to read online. And of course, there is the self-publishing option. Huge numbers of writers are not even bothering to query agents or to submit their manuscripts to publishers. They opt for self-publishing as their first choice rather than the last as was once the case. Some writers have no time to query, no time to learn the most effective way of presenting a proposal. Some see no reason to share their royalties with a publisher. Others simply want to bypass publishers’ standards. I’m sure there are as many reasons for self-publishing today as there are self-publishers, but my concern are those who want to bypass publisher’s standards. (Which, admittedly, seem to be non-existent these days.)
It does sound nice — doesn’t it? — to present your novel the way you want it done. It’s your prerogative, of course, and it is your novel. But is it? What about your potential readers? Isn’t it their novel, too? Too many people who self-publish think that freedom from a publisher’s standards makes them also free from a reader’s standards. But if no one can read your writing, if readers are pulled up short by misspellings, poor writing, poor storytelling, then what’s the point?
I’ve met some self-published authors who are proud of their inability to create a coherent sentence, as if it’s more artistic that way. Artistic? I suppose. But if I have to read a sentence two or three times to make sense of it, I don’t care how artistic it is. It’s a foolish waste of my time, and perhaps even a foolish waste of the writer’s. Reading a few articles about how to write, doing an extra re-write, taking care with proofreading might turn that unreadable tract into something people will want to read and even cherish. (I am by no means suggesting that all self-published writers need to be more careful. There are some fine writers who are self-publishing.)
A friend recently told me how proud she was of her ability to write in “southern dialect.” I cringed. Page after page of dialogue that you have to mentally transcribe into something resembling readable prose makes a reader toss a book aside. Perhaps, before radio and television, phonetically spelled dialects were important, because who, besides those who had been to the American south, knew what a southern accent was? Today, everyone (or almost everyone — I can’t vouch for those living in the far reaches of the planet who have no access to modern media) knows what a southern accent sounds like.
Writing is the great “as if.” You don’t need to painstakingly write in a southern accent, using phonetic spellings and a confetti of apostrophes.. The key is to make your readers feel as if they are reading such an accent. Some suggestions:
- You can simply say, “Delia spoke in a soft southern drawl.” Perhaps that is a bit clichéd, but it does get the point across. Afterward, you can write in normal English (or whatever language you write in) whenever Delia speaks.
- You can do one snippet of dialogue as dialect, then say “that’s what it sounded like when Delia spoke.” Readers will remember that’s how she talks, and will be grateful for your simple spelling thereafter.
- You can phrase your dialogue as if it were dialect, but leave off the funny spellings. “Much obliged for the lift, ma’am. My dad-blamed son drove my car a far piece down the road, and he plumb ruined it. I reckon I’ll be thumbing it a spell.” Sounds southern (of a sort) and it’s still readable.
Description is another case of “as if.” You don’t need long descriptive passages that offer nothing to the story. All you need are a couple of key details that make it seem as if you’re describing the whole. If you talk about brown stains on the ceiling or dust motes dancing in the sunlight shining through the bare spots of the maroon velvet drapes, readers will get a good idea of what that the room looks like. And if you mention the brand-new 35″ television looming large in that dreary old room, your readers will get a good idea of who your characters are.
Less isn’t always more when it comes to writing, of course, and “as if” isn’t always the answer. And you certainly don’t have to write with potential readers in mind — it’s hard enough to write a novel without that additional pressure. But once the book is written, it would be a good idea to act as if people are going to love it, and then give them something to love. Which means, rewrite it so that readers will want to read it and not throw it against the wall in frustration.
By self-publishing, you might be able to bypass publishers’ standards, but you can never bypass readers’ standards.