Sure, you can do your own thing, but not if you want to sell books

2kathyC06972C3-4F0F-4F17-B688-BD0EB2681583By Kathryn Lilley, TKZ Founder

Pardon the lateness of today’s post–your trusty admin got flummoxed by one too many date line and time zone  changes. We were in Australia for the Tennis Open, then New Zealand. Not being a tennis enthusiast, I spent most of my time chatting away with members of our group. I met one lovely woman, a writer, who’d written a book following the death of her husband. She traveled across multiple continents and countries, collecting stories of hope from people whose spouses had died. I haven’t read the book yet, but I understand it includes many “signs” that the surviving spouses interpreted as communications from their loved ones. It sounds like a lovely story, like THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING meets Eat, Pray, Love.

But what struck me most about her story was her description of the editing process. Without being prompted, I launched into a discussion of any number of ways one could set up a framework for a book dealing with death, travel, and personal/spiritual discovery. My new author friend waved her hand, as if to dismiss the whole topic of structure.

“I hired an editor, a very well known person,” she said, “but I wanted to write my book in my own way. Structure, organization–that kind of stuff, I felt,  interfered with the way I wanted to tell my story”

Me: “And was your book…published?”

“Eventually,” she replied. “I hired a (well-known predatory company that makes money off inexperienced writers, emphasis mine) that made it into an ebook and uploaded it to Amazon, to all the biggies.

“I just wanted to structure it my own way,” she concluded.

“And that’s fine,” I replied. “But if you actually want to, you know, sell books, you may want to consider revisiting your editor’s suggestions.”

This brings up something I’ll never understand: Why do people insist on “doing their own thing”, rejecting sound, time-tested, professional advice? It’s highly unlikely that a first-time writer’s notion of “doing her own thing” will result in a better book than if she had simply followed some tried-and-true craft guidelines.

Me? I’m like a sponge. I’m always looking for new ways to soak up valuable input from seasoned authors and professionals. That’s why, a few years ago,  I gathered a few hardy, fellow writers. Together, we started this blog. This blog is the place we can all come, let down our writer’s facade, and talk about the nuts and bolts of the writing craft.

“Do you own thing”? Good for diary writing. Not so good for selling books. What do you think?

Update: I just realized that instead of posting my stupid selfie at the top of this post, I should have linked to a video of the absolutely most adorable thing in New Zealand, the annual Running of the Wools. They run the sheep down the Main Street of Queenstown (or at least, try to make them run). It’s hilarious. Watch it if Ewe dare.


16 thoughts on “Sure, you can do your own thing, but not if you want to sell books

  1. A while back, I reconnected with a high school chum who was writing a book. He was totally unaware of indie publishing, and I told him how it worked. I looked at his manuscript–he’s a good writer, but I told him to hire an editor. He hooked up with one, and sent me the first chapter she’d edited for him, asking what I thought. I told him I thought she’d been very gentle, which upset him to no end. (We haven’t spoken much since). I’m sure he was looking for copy edits, because he didn’t want anyone messing with his writing. I’m not sure whether it was ever published; he was waiting for a friend who was planning to start a small publishing house.

    I’m running through the final draft of my manuscript before sending it to my editor, and waiting for beta readers to tell me what they think. (And hoping they’re not going to point out things I don’t want to hear, but yeah, that’s part of the biz.)

    Australian Open. Guess I’ve really been in my editing cave. I usually watch that. Didn’t even know it was going on.

  2. I think some people hear things, i.e. their story and prose, in their heads one way without comprehending that other people will process it differently. In their heads it’s perfect. They’ve captured the emotions, the laboriously detailed settings, the myriad details of each character’s background – so important! – or whatever it is they think they are conveying, without understanding that this isn’t story. Readers will glance at it and think boring dreck before the end of the first page (unless they are pixilated in the same way as the writer), and said writer will never understand. They will think the reader is wrong, because the writer knows he/she wrote that book perfectly. I don’t know that there is any cure for those like that.

    • We should come up with a phrase for that–“Writer’s Tinnitus Syndrome”. As in, an inner sound track that only the writer can hear, inside his head!

  3. Sounds a bit like going to the doctor and not getting your scrip filled, doing the exercises, or going to your follow up appointment, and then wondering why you’re still not getting any better ~

    • Now, if only we could invent a placebo for it. Little pink pills, call ’em “Prose Non-Abysmal,” or something like that!

  4. So many writers think they’re going to reinvent the wheel. Writing styles change but story structures rarely do. A lot of the problem is the new author’s beta readers are family and friends who aren’t going to be honest about the book.

    Aunt Betty: Oh, honey. I loved your book.
    New author: I knew you would! What was your favorite part?
    Aunt Betty: Oh, um, let’s see, um, it was all just sooo good.

    Then, if the author’s smart enough to at least get an editor to look at the book, they reject professional feedback because they’ve already been told how great the book is.

    Too many new authors think writing’s easy. They don’t understand the difference between spitting out a bunch of words and actually crafting a story that people will want to read and, gasp!, even buy.

    • It’s surprising that many writers don’t understand how important structure is to the success of a book, script, even a character. Thanks for commenting, Tom!

  5. Nice selfie! See that building behind you? It’s pretty cool. I wonder what would have happened to it if the architect had decided not to follow the rules of craft and just did his own thing.

      • Oh, and thanks for putting up with the selfie. In fact, the day we were there, the Opera house was closed for some undefined security reason. Of course, as soon as I heard that I immediately got as close as I could, to see what was up. Kind of dumb, in retrospect.

  6. Kathryn,

    Thanks for this great post!
    As it so happens I am working with a wonderful freelance editor right now, and you can be sure I am listening to her insights and suggestions! She has a laser like focus on reader expectations and reader experience which is proving invaluable.

  7. I once told a friend in a writer’s group who had “writing is genetic and I have good genes” syndrome this. If you were a new doctor just lucky enough to land your residency with Dr. Ben Carson, would you ignore his advice on neurosurgery?
    She answered, “But writing isn’t brain surgery.” She looked at me as if I’d insulted her intelligence. I guess I did.

    “Come on doc, I’ll just open up his head and muck around in there until I ‘m finished.”

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