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C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis (of Narnia fame) depended on editors to clean up his shaky spelling and clumsy punctuation.

The thing indie writers lack more than anything else is honest feedback. In the traditional publishing industry, all but the biggest-selling authors are subject to the opinions of their publisher’s various editors. Stories deemed too long or excessively rambling earn requests for cuts and rewrites before publication. Poorly drawn characters must be made more vivid. Perceived defects in the plot must be remedied. The use of words not suitable for the novel’s type or period also comes under fire. Copy editors rework spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Some companies even change works to fit their notion of what a book of any particular genre should be like; and so on.

Writers have to comply with the barrage of criticism and alterations or face having their book rejected. Some authors object violently to being vetted in this way, but the process is entirely responsible for the superior quality of the typical traditionally published book when compared with the usual indie offering. You have only to compare a few random picks on either side to see that this is true.

By the very nature of the self-publishing process, indie authors “escape” being vetted. Unless they have thousands of dollars with which to hire a suite of professionals, none of these critical and corrective processes is available to them. Their work goes out into the world exactly as it left the word processor. It is only as good as they themselves can make it. In a few cases, this may be good enough, but in the majority, it is not.

This is not a knock on indie writers. All writers produce work that could use at least a little sprucing up. To name just one example from the traditional publishing paradigm, C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) was an “indifferent” speller. His punctuation was hopeless. He would write something up without punctuation, then go back and randomly sprinkle in a few marks. It is worth noting that Lewis was an Oxford don, yet even he depended on his publishers to bring his works up to snuff.

We are all familiar with reviewers’ complaints about indie books: bad grammar, shaky spelling, poor character development, murky plots. The list is long. Carelessness or laziness on the writer’s part may account for some of this, but much more arises from the natural limitations of being human. As we see with C. S. Lewis, the writer with a vivid imagination and powerful story sense may well be a poor speller and lack even rudimentary punctuation skills. Precious few people on this Earth are good at every aspect of what they do. We tend to become skilled only at what interests us. The problem here is obvious; the poor-quality unedited writing so often found in indie works will eventually discredit the movement. If the present situation persists, the whole thing may collapse when readers quit trying to sort through so many badly written books.

So, if indie publishing is going to prosper in the long-term, indie writers must find a way to get some appropriate critical feedback.

Writers need good quality criticism if they are to grow. I am old enough to have been there when Ursula K. Le Guin published Rocannon’s World, the first volume of an sf trilogy. The novel was okay, but nothing special. Planet of Exile, the next in the series, appeared soon after and was noticeably better. When the third in the series, City of Illusions, came out, it floored me. Across those three early novels, le Guin had matured from a run-of-the-mill hack into a first-rate sf writer. I am not discounting her obvious ability, but you can bet the interaction with her editors played a significant role in her rapid development.

An indie author enjoys (or suffers!) no such benefit. I am currently reading Rachel Cotterill’s (no relation) second fantasy novel, Revolution, and while the book is much better in many respects than her first, it still has problems which should not be there in a second novel. To mention one, she is still using inappropriate words – modern terms such as “jogging” or “front line” – which have no place in a primitive society’s vocabulary. They stick out like sore thumbs and spoil the fictive illusion she is trying so hard to create and maintain. Those words would not be present if Cotterill’s first book had been subject to the rigours of a good edit. She would be on the lookout for them.

An obvious remedy for the lack of critical feedback for indies would be the team play. A writer who is good at spelling, grammar, and punctuation, but has trouble plotting, might work a deal with another writer who plots well but gets “there, their, they’re” all mixed up. The one with good grammar skills can point out the other writer’s grammar mistakes while that writer highlights the first writer’s plot gaffes. Both writers win. The obvious difficulty here is matching up writers of roughly equivalent skill levels or one person is putting in far more than the other. Writers may be able to work this out for themselves, but a clearinghouse run by interested volunteers might do a quick evaluation of various writers’ works and then do the pairing. The process would be easier after the publication of a given writer’s first novel or story.

Another remedy might be to restore the popularity of the writers’ circle. C. S. Lewis was part of one – called the Inklings – along with J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams (who wrote “metaphysical thrillers”), and a few others. They met twice a week to talk about what they were working on and to read from their works before listening to criticism or praise from the others. The Internet would not permit the face-to-face interaction (Skype might help!), but it would allow even the most isolated wordsmith to link up with other like-minded writers and expose some of their work to more objective viewpoints. Writers’ circles such as the Inklings or the more famous Bloomsbury group (dominated by Virginia Woolf) have produced great or near-great writers in clusters.

A third alternative might involve overhauling the way readers rate books on websites such as Goodreads, Amazon, or Smashwords. Instead of the simple stars system now in place, use something like eBay where readers could rate a book across several aspects. The list might include plot, characters, description, narrative, grammar, spelling, and vocabulary. As the number of ratings for an author grows, patterns will emerge. It would then be relatively easy to make a rough evaluation of a writer’s strengths and weaknesses. With that in hand, it would be possible to pair up – or organize into circles – writers who have complementary skills. An average overall rating would yield an assessment of general skill-levels to increase the likelihood of grouping together writers of comparable ability.

Even with no pairing or grouping, authors would at least get a more definite sense of where they need to do better.

The goal here is the development of a writer’s skills. As in the traditional publishing paradigm, it is important that indie authors improve from one work to the next until they have become mature writers who are able to bring all their powers to bear on the work in hand. Without the installation of such an improvement process, the marketplace may not be kind.

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