The Power of Editing

When I wrote my first draft of Legacy Discovered, I decided that if it was going to be taken seriously, then it would need to be read with as few unnecessary grammatical errors as possible, so as not to distract the reader from the story and its characters. As I wrote my first chapters, I reached out to my Facebook friends and asked for volunteers to read, edit and comment on the book as I wrote it. Using the collaborative cloud service, Box.com, I was able to upload the chapters where my volunteers were able to read and comment from whatever location they may be. Once I had a first draft and signed up with Createspace to publish the novel, I chose a package that included a round of professional editing. Even after this round of publishing and another review by my volunteer friends, I re-read the book twice at a steady pace. My goal was to have my book look professional to any reader. Since it has been published, I have discovered a handful of small overlooked errors which will be corrected in an upcoming re-release; however, I feel it compares very favorably to books released through many of the professional publishing houses. Yet, as I have read some works from fellow indie authors in the past year, it has surprised me just how much the art of editing has suffered during the self-publishing revolution, an issue that may be dragging on the creative power of books to today’s audiences.

In many of the indie books that I read, I was quite impressed with the story-telling prowess of my fellow authors. I may have had an occasional plot or character quibble, but for the most part, my interest was held. Still, to come across the somewhat frequent extraneous ‘to‘ or ‘the‘ within a sentence would be like hitting a pothole on a comfortable ride. A missing key word in a sentence would feel like a red light on a freeway as I had to stop to try and understand the sentence before moving on. Misplaced quotation marks during character interactions would confuse me as I tried to determine whether a statement was stated aloud or was just a thought expressed as an aside in the dialogue. In one novel, I truly had to shake my head at the statement “She s.” for which I will never know what the author was hoping to express. Formatting errors were also prevalent, like an end of line or extra indent within a paragraph. What got me was just how prevalent these simple errors were and how easily most of them could have been corrected with a steady review of the work before publishing.

Actually, these errors in no way reflect upon the literacy or grammatical competency of the author. Our brains are notoriously capable of mentally correcting and becoming blind to these types of errors during reading, especially when the underlying meaning is truly clear to the reader. Since an author is the one who transcribed his or her thoughts to the paper (virtual or real), his or her brain very easily corrects these errors mentally as the work is reviewed. The rush to get the story out under deadline is the main reason why these errors have become almost the norm in online news postings or within current newspaper articles. However, the novel is not a place where the avid reader expects to find these errors, as the reader expects that time is available to edit the story being presented to him or her. Since readers do not create the works in front of them, they are more likely to stumble upon these errors when the meaning has been slightly compromised by these errors. Subconsciously, the errors begin to reflect upon the stature of the work, regardless of the entertainment or informational value of the work.

I have come to respect the power of having a trusted second or third pair of eyes review my work. I would hope that other indie authors would open themselves to having someone else review their work before publishing in today’s digital world, even if it is among trusted friends. A good editor does not take away from a writer’s voice; he or she only enhances it for a receptive reader.

Thoughts on The Social Novel

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was held this weekend on the USC campus. I spent Saturday walking through the booths, checking out local bookstore offerings and featured authors. I also found a couple of indie author promotion and marketing booths and made contacts with them in regards to my current novel. It was a fun and interesting day for me. In addition, I attended a couple of “conversations,” moderated author panels focusing on fiction. One panel was appropriately labeled “Looking for Trouble,” considering the wild and erratic conversation that came from the four authors. However, the other panel turned out to be more intelligent and thought-provoking in its discussion of the “Social Novel.”

At first, the authors on the panel wondered at why they had been selected for a panel entitled the social novel. Rachel Kushner had a recently released novel, “The Flame Throwers,” which followed characters in rebellious New York City neighborhoods in the late 60s and equally rebellious neighborhoods in Rome during the early 70s. Marisa Silver’s recently released novel, “Mary Coin,” examined a fictional history of a photographer and her subject based on a famous photo of a migrant mother and her children from the 1930s. Jonathan Lethen was about to release a novel in the summer that appeared to be hard to explain in the session. There appeared to be no common theme in the narratives of these authors, except for the general concept that actions of their characters had to interact within the social network and individuals within a common social group. The conversation became a discussion about the concept of the individual within society and the contrast between the two. The panel defined two perceptions that was recognizable in literature – the American perception that favored individualism within societal relations and the European perception of a social commonality and responsibility among the individuals within the group. The general impression I received from the panel was that writers usually expressed themselves on one side or the other. What I wished there was time to consider was whether any of the authors felt a sense or possibility that modern literature might move toward a balance of the two perceptions, a sort of global perception that the individual has an innate responsibility toward the social community, while the social community depended upon its recognition of the individual contributions supporting it.

I can see the difficulty in trying to examine this delicate balance within a literary structure. Like all balances, it is dependent upon competing forces. While trying to understand this balanced competition, each of us tends to sympathize and side with one perception over the other. We feel that society must recognize each of us and it is up to us to present our own individuality to society as a whole – or we feel that society needs each of us to come together so we must submit our feelings and talents to the good of the whole. It becomes hard for us to see how both perceptions are just as valid and just as necessary in finding that balance. Also, even if we accept and explore the necessity of balancing both perceptions, we find it hard to not try and calculate an absolute formula in which to find and impose this balance. In nature and the universe, this balance is always fluid and constantly under recalibration. No wonder it is hard for any writer – past, present and future – to explore any story or set of characters working within a balance of the individual and society. Maybe something to discuss at next year’s Festival of Books.

The Mastery of Agatha Christie

When I was in high school, I bought a sixty-cent paperback of Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders, perhaps intrigued after seeing the 1965 movie version, The Alphabet Murders, on TV. The movie did not take the story seriously and can be easily dismissed, but the original book was a revelation into the classic world of the murder mystery as presented by Dame Christie. I followed up by purchasing the sixty-cent paperbacks of Murder in the Calais Coach (more famously known as Murder on the Orient Express) and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I was amazed at how the revelation of the truth made perfect sense even though I had been fooled like millions of readers before me. I was hooked on the Christie style which presented the suspects and provided the clues fairly, but still misdirected me in trying to outsmart the detective in the story. I started adding to my paperback collection and now have all of Agatha Christie’s mystery novels in paperback in my library, all of them bought well over thirty years ago. There are a few of her short stories that did not appear in the collections I purchased, but I did add a collection of her plays which included The Mousetrap, a play that continues to be performed in London’s West End.

I cannot say that every one of her novels reaches the standard of a five star classic, but there is not a one that I did not wind up liking and the number of her novels that did reach the five star level far exceeded her contemporaries and the many that have since followed her. Her plots generally followed a set path, but this did not keep her from upending convention. The novel that made her famous, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, demonstrates this perfectly by subverting the Dr. Watson storytelling convention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (For those few who have not read this book, I will not go any further on this point.) In general, the reader is introduced to a set of characters within an environment where a murder takes place. These characters may have quirks but they are never one-dimensional which makes us care for them throughout the story. There is a balance between characters who feel the seriousness of the situation and characters who comically accept the situation as a puzzle to be solved. This is a delicate balance at which I find many modern mystery writers fail. In The Body in the Library, a young blonde woman is found dead in the library of Colonel and Mrs. Bantry’s estate. Instead of having a lot of anguish and dread about the dead woman in her home, Mrs. Bantry quickly gets her friend, Miss Marple, to come over before the detectives arrive to show her how “unreal” the body appears. Readers eventually come to learn about the young woman and how she unknowingly became the object of greed and jealousy, but they are not dragged down by heavy emotional introspection as Miss Marple helps the police solve the case.

Perhaps the most interesting theme within Agatha Christie’s mysteries is her sense of justice and its value to social order. Two of her most famous novels reveal how she believes in justice – Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None. In Murder on the Orient Express, a man is murdered in his cabin in the end railway coach of the Orient Express. Because the train was trapped by a snow drift, it becomes obvious to Hercule Poirot that the murderer was one of the twelve other passengers on the coach, but he also discovers that the victim was responsible for a child kidnapping and murder in America, yet avoided justice. When Poirot gives his dissertation about his investigation at the end of the book, he provides two solutions to the Orient Express manager and suspects – one true and one simplistically false. Since readers realize that the true motive for the murder is appropriate justice, they accept that the eventual authorities will be given the simple but false solution. In And Then There Were None, ten people are invited to an island for a weekend retreat and discover that one of them is out to kill the others one at a time. A recording that plays to them on the first night informs them that they have all committed murder which is why they have been sentenced to death over the course of the weekend. In the original novel, no one survives. A letter to the authorities later reveals who was responsible. (I find it interesting that Christie herself had to change the ending allowing survivors in order to adapt the story to the stage, which is the plotline seen in all of the movie versions.) The basic concept seems to be that murder in the role of justice was a valid concept to Agatha Christie, and considering some of the crimes with which her victims were accused in And Then There Were None, the level of culpability to be eligible for the death penalty was very low.

The Gathering – A Christmas Favorite

Every Christmas season, I make time for an annual viewing of movie holiday classics among the multitude of new offerings presented by Lifetime, ABC Family and Hallmark Channel. Many would recognize the classics in my DVD collection – It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol, The Apartment. However, I have one favorite standard in my collection that may not be as well-known, The Gathering. For years, I had to be content with watching it on the VHS recording I had made when it aired on PBS over twenty years ago. Last year, it was finally released on DVD and I was able to retire the VHS tape to the recycle bin.

The Gathering was a 1977 TV holiday movie that won the Emmy for Outstanding Special. Edward Asner stars as Adam Thornton, a gruff, stubborn business owner who is separated from his wife and estranged from his four grown-up children. As the movie opens, he has just been informed that he has only weeks to live. He realizes that he needs to rebuild the relationships with his children, so he goes to see his wife, Kate, portrayed by Maureen Stapleton, to get their addresses or some means of communicating with them. Despite his attempt to display normalcy, she instantly realizes that something is wrong and confronts him, forcing him to confess his medical condition. She declares that they together will invite the children back home for a Thornton family Christmas. Will they come and give their father a chance at redemption and reconciliation? Since this is a warm holiday movie, we already know the answer to this, but it goes to the power of the story that we become so emotionally invested in the process.

During my years with Disney ABC, I was fortunate to meet and interact with many well-known actors and television personalities while producing satellite interview tours and interview junkets. It was during one of these satellite tours that I had a chance to meet Ed Asner. I told him that The Gathering was one of my favorite Christmas movies and his first response was “Great script by James Poe.” His comment went to the essence of what makes this movie so great. This was a writer’s vehicle, a well-structured story with wonderful dialogue. It weaves the individual tales of each relationship into a redemptive drama about the rebuilding of a family.

Pride and Prejudice

In Legacy Discovered, I used references to classic literature that reflected themes within my novel. I had read many of the referenced works, but one classic I had not read was Pride and Prejudice. My use of Jane Austen’s classic as a high school English assignment for Sue was based upon my general knowledge of the book’s story and themes. However, after I published Legacy Discovered, I felt I should take the time to read Pride and Prejudice for myself, so I downloaded the free e-book. Last week, I had time to finally read this literary romance classic.

In order to read and understand Pride and Prejudice, the reader must consider the social and historical environment at the time it was written. In order to project refinement and social bearing within mid-nineteenth century English society, conversation and narration was less direct and presented very grammatically and more subtly with a polite surfeit of words to please modern English teachers. For the LOL generation, this is TMI for attention-challenged minds. However, for those willing to look under the puffery language, Pride and Prejudice is a light, yet thoughtful story about a woman, Elizabeth Bennet, who is the second oldest in a family of five daughters, whose mother is very intent on finding suitable – read higher social class – husbands for them. But Elizabeth is too proud and honest, brutally so, to play the game her mother expects her and her sisters to play. Elizabeth attracts the attention of a well-to-do reserved gentleman, Mr. Darcy, which she determines to be arrogant.  Stories about Darcy that she later hears from a suave regiment officer just reinforces her prejudices toward him. It is only when Darcy gains the courage to express his intentions and gets an earful on his perceived shortcomings, that he begins to show her just how wrong she was about him. The plot has become a standard in many romantic comedies since, which is why it deserves its reputation as a classic in English literature.

Lessons in Self Promotion – Part 2

The post-Olympic and Labor Day weekend free download promotions did not generate much in the way of new sales, although I was pleased to get a few more positive reviews on Amazon; however, some new connections would provide me with more avenues of promoting my novel. On Twitter, my paltry account got a new follower, Faydra Deon. One day, I checked out the links on her profile and discovered that she was the owner and developer of the Independent Author Index. Her site and the Independent Author Network are two sites where indie authors can join to promote their creative works and readers can go to search for uniquely new literary gems. Both networks maintained that every author needed an individual website and blog, which led me to invest the time and effort to learn how to create my site. As soon as I had a viable site ready, I joined the Independent Author Index.

At the same time, while going through my author’s page on Amazon, I noted a section recommending that I update the extras section of my book on Shelfari, Amazon’s social media site for book lovers. As an author on Amazon, I discovered a logon and account had already been created for me. I was guided to join the Book Promotion & Marketing group and discovered some postings about e-zine blog sites that freely promote daily free e-book promotions to their readers. Of course, the number of books these sites could promote daily was limited. I had just been given a new allotment of five promo days from Kindle Publishing to schedule, so I went over my options. The obvious choice would have been the upcoming Thanksgiving weekend, but I heeded the lesson from my first five promo days and scheduled one free day for this past Saturday, one week before Thanksgiving, and labeled it the “try before you gift” promotion. Besides the Facebook postings and tweets, I now alerted the Index and registered the promo day with four e-reader sites. With less competition, two of the sites – The Digital Ink Spot and the Ereader News Today – added Legacy Discovered as one of the featured free e-books for Saturday. The results were amazing. This one day promotion netted nearly fifteen times more downloads than the two day post-Olympics promotion. Now as I await the judgment of these new readers, I consider the newest lesson of self-promotion – with limited resources, seek out and do not miss the opportunities to join the networks and groups of fellow independent authors for there is strength in numbers and cross-promotion is key.

There will be more lessons to be learned as I continue to introduce my debut novel to readers around the world and contemplate the next story to be told. I will also start to look at my fellow authors current works and give my honest opinion on their endeavors, which is all I would ever ask of anyone willing to read my work.

Lessons in Self Promotion – Part 1

It has been a little over a year since I decided to write and self-publish a novel. At the time, I decided on writing my story idea as a novel instead of a screenplay, because I knew that self-publishing had leveled the playing field for aspiring authors, while getting a screenplay read or pitched was still a daunting option. Writing the story well was my main goal. I was not focused on how I would promote this work, but my years of working in publicity for a major entertainment company did teach me one thing – good promotion can get a creative work an initial audience, but it is up to the work itself to keep and expand that audience.

After subjecting my first and subsequent drafts to an “edit focus group” of several friends, I went to CreateSpace to self-publish the novel. CreateSpace, an Amazon company, had a very reasonably-priced package that included a professional once-over by an editor and exterior/interior design packages for the book. However, the two major pluses I saw was the immediate access the book would have on the Amazon.com book and Kindle distribution system and the wide release of a professionally written press release announcing the book’s publication. I wasn’t expecting the journalistic world to come pounding on my door, but I did feel that I would get a few requests which would probably get me a few good reviews to tout on the Facebook page I had set up for Legacy Discovered. Some Facebook word of mouth, some Twitter posts and some impulse buying on Amazon would produce enough royalty payments to earn a year’s pay at the least. What I learned is that the ease of self-publishing had caused an onslaught of new publications on the market, about a thousand new books a month. Not only did major publications and local newspapers not have room or time to even consider the self-published wave, but a few outlets, some respectable, were able to charge sponsorships for their reviews. This meant the playing field was not as level as I imagined as an aspiring writer cannot match the resources the major publishers have to promote their releases.

Realizing the limits of my resources, I knew I had to be creative and patient with what I had. What I had was social media in the form of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Some of my friends had supported my efforts by actually buying the book from Amazon. I asked a couple of them to honestly review the book on Amazon. This helped show purchase activity on the page. I posted and tweeted the links to the Amazon book pages. I received a lot of congrats on writing and publishing, but no sales beyond the few. One of the promotional tools that Amazon’s Kindle Publishing provided was the ability to schedule up to five free promo days within a 90 day period. With the Olympics drawing the attention of television audiences in August, I decided to schedule my first two promo days on the final weekend as a post-Olympic blues free Kindle e-book download weekend. I posted the promotion to my Facebook friends and LinkedIn connections. I tweeted the promotion and got @kindle_promo to retweet my posting. I had a fairly successful number of downloads, fifty times more than my current sales total. I instantly thought that if I could get this many downloads on a mid-August weekend, imagine what I could get by scheduling the other three days for the Labor Day weekend. The total of downloads over the three day weekend was one fifth the total of the post-Olympic blues weekend. One could say I had reached all I could reach that first weekend, but I have another theory – the post-Olympic promo was not only more creative, but had less competition than the promo heavy Labor Day weekend.