The Five-Tool Player: Writers should break with tradition to become the industry’s versatile superstars

For writers these days, many things have changed. We all know it. More opportunities exist now than ever before and many of them necessitate acquiring and putting to good use skills we’ve never had to really consider before. This can be seen as a liberating development or a very concerning one, depending on your point of view. If you’re a newbie looking to break into publishing, these new skills may be seen as simply an essential part of the process. If you’ve already had a 30-year career, and developed a process that you’ve got down cold, it may well be that the new realities seem like just an added pain in the ass, extra work you never had to worry about before now dumped right in your lap screwing up the system you’ve been perfecting for decades. But that doesn’t change the way things actually are. To quote a fairly popular sci fi property, as many writers and publishers are learning every day, resistance is futile and getting more so every day.

There are an ample number of writers out there on the web more than willing to share their knowledge, insights and advice to anyone who will listen. Hell, you could spend ten hours a day reading up on all the different takes on what new writers need to do to find success these days and not run out of material for weeks. Yet even with many of these writers steeped in the new order of things, a few long standing beliefs about the role writers should play continue to be perpetuated. These notions, while rooted in some legitimate facts, I believe are holdovers from the previous regime where writers, in many cases, allowed themselves to be underestimated and infantalized. It’s understandable, as we could avoid tasks that sometimes included drudgery we didn’t want to deal with and it simultaneously allowed the publishing industry to build up additional layers of “necessary” assistance helping to cement their self-proclaimed central positions in the content creation process.

While writers today have the potential to be freed from the shackles of the traditional industry in many ways, we also can be freed from the layers of unneeded outside “help” that have been accepted, largely, as weigh stations between writers and readers over the years. Here are my opinions on three of the biggest, and often most controversial, myths of the writing process that, thus far, seem to be tagging along into the new reality.

Marketing is too time consuming for writers

It’s too time consuming to promote yourself and your career? You know what else is time consuming? Getting up and going to a job for eight to ten hours a day every day for your entire adult life. You want to build a career in the entertainment industry, you’re going to have to do some heavy self marketing. You can’t expect someone else to do it for you, no matter how much they claim it as an advantage of throwing in with them. To be sure, publishers have an ample history and the resources to take care of promoting your works. That’s not at issue. What is at issue is whether or not you, personally, will be graced with any of those resources or efforts. Far too frequently, the answer to that question in no. Besides, one of the first things publishers are looking for these days in an author is a platform and/or a following. If you don’t already have one, you can be damn sure they’ll require it of you. Don’t care for blogging, tweeting, facebooking, pinteresting or what have you? Too bad because you’ll be doing it anyway, either for yourself or at your publisher’s behest.

You don’t have to fight it, however, and it doesn’t have to eat up all of your time. Blog once in a while. Tweet occasionally, leave some comments on other sites. And write. One of the truest statements I’ve seen come out of self publishing thus far is that the best marketing you can do for a book is write another kick-ass book. Everything else can be handled in increments.

You don’t have to spend eight hours a day pouring over Twitter, just a little time and effort when you can. Remember, everything you do online, no matter how large or small, adds to your digital footprint. That footprint is where fans and customers are ultimately found. A blog post once a week or so, a few tweets a day, a comment or two on any articles of interest is all you really need. Do those things consistently and, before you know it, you’ve built yourself a platform.

Once you have that, everything else you do simply adds to it. Do a blog tour, create an online site for direct sales, do a Goodreads promotion, etc. Whatever you come up with, and there are nearly infinite means of exposing your work to new potential readers, it all adds up. You don’t need 12 hours a day of marketing, just consistency. You’re books aren’t on a limited time schedule any more, you’re promotion doesn’t have to be either. And don’t ever forget that each new piece you publish is, in effect, part of your marketing efforts. Overlapping duties is a great way to save time.

Writers can’t design professional quality covers or art for their work

I like graphic designers. Some of my best friends are designers. They each have a certain artistic flair and approach uniquely their own, and many of them do magnificent work. But one thing I’ve learned is that the real artistry in design for publication is knowing how to manipulate the software. It’s not an unreproduceable skill, it’s a learned one that experience helps grow. Maybe you can’t draw, but that doesn’t mean you can’t manipulate art, images and fonts into a compelling piece. And that goes doubly for layouts for ebooks and print. Learn a little html, and you can easily crank out well formatted books in any digital file-type you like. Learn InDesign, or some other page layout software, and you can do print layouts for POD quite easily. You’d be surprised how easily.

Design seems like such an intimidating process, particularly if you’ve never tried. But once you get the hang of it, you soon find yourself stretching the basic skills and pushing yourself to figure out how to do some cool effect or other that you’ve got envisioned in your head. As your skills grow, you’ll be amazed how many things you can pull off on a professional level of quality that you had always thought was unreachable to you.

Developing the basic skills is the easy part. Learning to fit various design elements together seamlessly and effectively is tougher. Practice, practice, practice is the only way, and believe me, you will be glad you did. Adding an artistic-execution eye to your work also helps fully develop your understanding of a piece and can aide you in better marketing for it. Just as great writing is an important element in promotion, so is great art, particularly a stellar cover. Learning design isn’t impossible, far from it, and it can add to your overall package, improving both your understanding of the work and how it should be promoted.

Writers can’t edit their own work

This is a big one. You see it repeated everywhere, from the most jaded traditional publisher to the most optimistic indie. To that, I say, “Nonsense!” This, to me, has never made a lick of sense. You’re the writer, you crafted these sentences yet you can’t properly copy edit them? Absurd! Of course you can. More than that, you should. A writer who relies on others to produce clean copy free of errors is only doing half the job, in my opinion. One caveat to this is that it is always better to have multiple sets of eyes look a piece of writing over before it is unleashed on the world. Is it better enough to justify dropping some heavy coin down for it? That depends. If you develop the patience and skill to produce clean, grammatically sound copy, then it may not be in many instances. But this isn’t something that just suddenly happens. You aren’t born with magical typo-seeking editor skills. You have to work at it, but once you do, you can eliminate or seriously cut down on the need for extensive outside copy editing.

Now, what I’m talking about here is strictly editing for mistakes. Typos, grammatical problems, perspective errors, etc. Editing for plot and story content is an entirely different matter. For that, you absolutely need extra points of view. But, and here’s the crucial thing, you don’t need a professional editor for the content side of the equation. All you need is a beta reader or two or three. Someone you trust to read analytically and take notes. They don’t have to pour over the manuscript word for word, just for overall concepts, plot flow and character issues. I would even argue that having content reading done by actual readers is preferable to professional editing in that sense. Your target audience is regular readers, after all.

The two largest justifications for the belief that writers can’t do their own editing are that you know what you were trying to say with your story so well that you can’t see what you actually said, and that typos will slip by because your mind tends to be too familiar with your intent so it fills in whatever blanks you may have left. These two occurrences, while somewhat related, do have merit from a certain point of view, but there’s a solution to each. For content, beta readers will see what’s actually on the page (or the screen, if you will). If there are flaws in your logic, portions where characters acted against type or unrealistically, or holes both large and small left in your plot, your beta readers will point those out. For the technical side, there’s a straight forward solution as well. Write the story, do a thorough read through or edit and then put it aside. A couple weeks or a month later, pull it back out and pour over it nice and slowly, word for word. With a bit of practice, the distance you put between drafting and copy editing removes the familiarity blunders and lets you see what anyone reading the piece would see.

A good editor can be worth their weight in gold, but they can also be rare. An average or mediocre editor doesn’t bring very much to the table you can’t do for yourself and costs you extra money. No one knows and understands your particular style like you do. No one can properly follow the pace, tone and feel of your sentence structure better than you. If you have an editor you’re comfortable with, both in terms of what they bring to your work and what it costs you, by all means, use them to your full advantage. But don’t confuse any editor for a good one. And the more capable you are of crafting and polishing your own clean copy, the less you need to rely on outside help that may or may not truly be all that helpful.

Remember that editing a manuscript is a two part process–technical and story. The better you become on the technical side, the less hassle you will encounter preparing a work for publication. The notion that writers can’t adequately copy edit their own work is just wrong. Editing is a crucial part of the writing process. Without possessing those skills, you’re not fully developing your writing powers.

Defenders of traditional publishers like to tout the benefits they bring to the table, foremost among them are marketing, art design and editing. As such, a system has developed over the years where each of these three areas has been gradually taken away from the writer’s control and we’ve had it ingrained in us that it’s in our best interest to do things that way, that we just don’t have the skills to do them ourselves. Writers have been both underestimated and purposely sheltered by those beliefs for the sake of someone else’s self-interest for a very long time.

Editors, designers and marketers introduce layers of separation between the writer and their work, making the finished book more a product of the publisher than the writer. This is the mechanism used to justify keeping the writer’s share of the proceeds underneath the publisher’s share, despite what you might hear about writers being the costliest part of the publishing process. Don’t believe it. The publisher’s cut and the infrastructure costs used to justify that cut are the greatest expenses in publishing. Remove the necessity of some those infrastructure costs and that removes the justifications to keep the writer’s cut from actually becoming the highest expense in publishing, as well it should be.

It’s wonderful that we now have the opportunities we do, but this added potential also carries added responsibilities. We must expand and improve our skills if we are to truly circumvent the established process for getting work to market, and continue to cultivate new, profitable models for selling our wares. It’s great if you have the relationships and money to acquire first rate design and exceptional professional copy editing. But that doesn’t mean we can’t fill in some of those gaps on our own. Writers need to understand that we, now and increasingly in the future, are more in the position of publishers. As such, we must truly grasp the implications of every aspect of the process between first draft and publication. The more of those elements we can do ourselves at a high level, the better our understanding of the underlying reasons for those skills and how they contribute to the whole, and the better our chances of finding success.

We don’t necessarily have to do everything alone, nor am I advocating that in all cases, but we should at least know how. Don’t let anyone, however good intentioned, tell you that you can’t do it because, with some few exceptions and a modicum of effort, you can. Specialized skills are nice, but the level of specialization that has developed over the decades in big publishing happened because the financial framework existed to allow it, and it served publishers’ ultimate ends to make writers but one link in the chain of production they lorded over rather than a partner in the process.

The real question you have to ask yourself is what kind of writer do you want to be? In baseball, prospects are often given the highest ratings for being five-tool players, or players whose skill sets are diversified across the spectrum of abilities (power, average, speed, defense and arm). Writers in the future have the ability to be five-tool players in our own little field of dreams, those five tools being writing, editing, design, marketing and distribution. When one of those prospects finds success on the diamond, they quickly become the cornerstone under which a winning franchise can be built. If writers in large numbers cultivate all the tools needed to get from writing to reader, we, too, have the potential to become cornerstones of our own winning enterprises. Otherwise, we remain one-dimensional players better suited to remain as one of several specialized contributors to a lineup rather than the centerpiece and driving forces we all now can be. Should we strive to be the versatile, all-around great player or the power hitting DH who is slow on the bases, can’t play the field and puts up almost nothing at the plate but home runs and strikeouts? Which player do you think has the greater opportunity for lasting success?

Don’t allow long-standing prejudices about what you are and are not capable of underestimate your worth, value or potential as a writer. The one thing publishers fear more than Amazon is the thought that writers of all stripes will one day figure out that we are just as capable of successfully taking on all the tasks that have been made to seem insurmountable. Ignore the propaganda that says you can’t do something, and you may well discover that you absolutely can. What could be more liberating than that?

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