Quality vs. quantity in indie publishing

Art by David Mack

My last post, about The Great Revising Debate of 2014, discusses the question of how good the writing should be before an author publishes the book. Specifically, how many drafts should the book have gone through? How much revision does it take to create “good, publishable writing”?

The stance I best relate to is the one that says, write it as best you can. Once you have a piece that you think people would like, then publish it. Now go write some more. And publish that. Be prolific. Write thousands of words. Practice writing like doctors practice medicine. By doing it. And giving it to real, live people to read.

Don’t try to make it “perfect”. Don’t get hung up on the idea that good art somehow requires multitudes of drafts to be enjoyable, or even to be “excellent”.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Or the reader, in this case.

The flip side of the quantity coin

Like so much in life, there is a tension that must be maintained between two extremes. Somewhere between “always strive for excellence” and “just get it out there” is some common sense. I hold two things firmly in mind as I approach my own art and writing:

- There is a minimum quality threshold.

I won’t say, “Don’t sell your work unless it’s of certain quality.” Just realize that if you do, you do it at your own risk.

It’s one thing for an artist to sell their sketches. After all, if someone likes the sketch enough to buy it, then both parties are happy with the sale and it’s all good. But with a sketch, you can see the entire thing before you buy. When it comes to selling e-books, you may give a sample, but the sample does not always reflect the quality of the entire work. The sample might be decent, but the ability to execute the entire story lacking.

Even bestselling authors lose readers when their endings fail to please (cough-cough, Stephen King, ahem). If you get a reputation as a sucky author, the one who loses in the long run is you. Er, not saying Stephen King is a sucky author, I love him and respect his work. Some of his endings, however… well, I know some folks who lost interest in him because of a few disappointments.

- Better is better than more. tweet this

This clever turn of phrase is not my own. “Better is better than more” is from Seth Godin’s post, Not even one note. He shared about learning a musical instrument. If you can’t play even one note with clarity and beauty enough to move someone, then maybe you’re not ready to put on a concert. Either keep practicing until you can, or do it for joy and not profit, or walk away. There is honor in all three choices.

But there is no honor in sloppiness, not caring enough to work at your craft, or in disrespecting your readers by charging them for a poor product.

A balanced approach, aka the wisdom of David Mack

I’m a big fan of David Mack’s art, both in comic books and other formats. He said something earlier this year about practicing your art that summarizes the approach I like best. Some excerpts:

STEP 1: START.  START NOW.
Nothing takes the place of just doing it.
STEP 2: FINISH IT.  COMPLETE IT.
STEP 3: SHOW IT TO PEOPLE.
Guess what? It WON’T BE GOOD ENOUGH… And this project will give you insight on how to improve your next work.
STEP 4: REPEAT STEPS 1-3 over and over. Forever.

Like so many things, it is so simple.

Easy to say. Challenging to do. That’s life.

What step are you on? Tell me in the comments.

Until next time, live long and prosper. Go forth, and publish.

The Great Story Revising Debate of 2014

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr

I saw this on Twitter today and decided I just couldn’t keep quiet on this subject anymore:

“Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.”-Patricia Fuller

A great sound bite. A sensational image in your mind’s eye. But in the end, it simply perpetuates what I believe is a damaging myth for indie authors everywhere.

Why This Debate Matters Now

This whole question of whether to rewrite stories wasn’t such a big deal a decade ago. Sure, it was still affecting writers, but it wasn’t as critical an issue. Why? Because back then it wasn’t this easy to publish a book! Today I can draft something, format it for e-readers, and publish it through Amazon.com onto the virtual bookshelves right next to yesterday’s classics and today’s bestsellers. No gatekeeper. No stopping me.

With great power comes great responsibility. More to the point, if you want success publishing your own books, you need to know “how good is good enough” before you upload that precious novel of yours to Amazon.com. How much revision does it take? What is a “quality book” that will make fans out of first-time readers?

Another huge reason that this question matters more now than ever is because one of the most effective ways to make fans out of new readers is to have a bunch of books available for them to read. tweet this A reader discovers a book, they like it, and then they want more. If there are a bunch of books available and more on the way, there’s a good chance that new reader will become a fan who keeps coming back.

Why I care enough to beat you over the head with this post (*smack!*)

If re-writing and revising one’s work is the key to making a quality book, then we need to know.

But if it’s not… if it’s detrimental to writers, we need to know that, too!

I care about you, dear writer friends. And I write today because:

  • certain kinds of revisions can destroy the fresh, original voice of a story
  • revising is not writing, and better writing comes through more writing, not more revising
  • writing a book is takes long enough without getting bogged down in the twilight of the revision-procrastination zone
  • by far the most effective marketing tool for the new indie author of today is having a lot of books available to readers, so “ship it”!

*** The disclaimers ***

  • Every writer is different.
  • “Your mileage may vary.”
  • If you’re the type of writer whose prose and overall story gets better with every draft, and you know this for a fact, then DO WHAT WORKS FOR YOU. Period.
  • If you know your work isn’t ready and would disappoint paying customers, then keep writing and improving until it is.

The one thing missing from this debate

I’ve read a number of articles on this topic, and one critical factor is rarely given the weight I feel it deserves:

Judging art as if there is a single, objective measurement of beauty or enjoyment is completely absurd. tweet this

These statements fall under this category of absurdity:

  • “Prolific writers put out books of lesser quality.”
  • “Quick writing is sloppy writing.”
  • “A book like this will never be a classic.”
  • “Go ahead and write pulp fiction if you want. I want to write something of excellence, a work of true literary value.”
  • “A book that popular is probably trashy, anyway.”

We all tend to judge books by what we enjoy. We each have our tastes, our preferences. Some of us are sophisticated, some of us are easily entertained. There are as many different kinds of readers as there are different kinds of writers! And yet we often assume that if a book doesn’t please us, it won’t please anyone else. Big mistake!

Real food vs. junk food

I’m not saying that poor writing doesn’t exist.

I’m not saying that immature writing doesn’t sometimes get popular.

In fact, I agree with the idea that some books are the “junk food” of the reading world. The “reality TV shows” of the book world. Full of sensationalism and designed to provoke emotions and create addicts without offering much of lasting value or without any sort of uplifting, moral impact. There’s something to be said for using the power of words wisely, using them to encourage a better individual or a more healthy society.

However, when we’re giving advice to sincere, aspiring authors who want to jump into the indie publishing waters, let’s not put up false barriers. The number of revisions really doesn’t have anything to do with the junk food issue. Whether or not the book is “junk food” is a choice the author makes when they choose the story and theme and write it. The McDonald’s franchise owners of the world all have to settle in their own conscience whether or not they’re okay with selling garbage to junk food addicts. Some people don’t care that it’s junk, it’s what they like!

But we’re not here to debate whether it’s a good idea to write books that are nothing more than candy for sugar addicts.

The real question is whether the writing is ready for public sale. Is it going to satisfy readers? Is it “good enough”? Which begs the question…

What is good art?

Good art is art that moves us. Art that expresses something about being human. Struggle, tragedy, kindness, disappointment, triumph, beauty. Good art captures and illustrates these things. I think looking at the visual arts offers a helpful illustration. What exactly does good art look like?

“Where Nature’s God Hath Wrought” by William Wendt

Does it have to be in a museum to be good art?

Can street artists qualify?

What if it is commercialized and sold on pillows and shower curtains?

What if it is drawn on napkins?

Great art is not always an oil painting. Sometimes it’s a comic book sketch. It would be a great mistake to compare the two. They are different forms of art. tweet this

Art by David Mack

Same goes for books. Some books are a pencil sketch that is so realistic it could be a photograph.

Aragorn by esteljf on deviantart.com

Some books are a surreal portrait. Some are an impressionist landscape. Some are a graphic novel, portraying an ongoing comedy or drama.

Collect the ones you like. Avoid the ones you don’t.

Respect the rights of others to value books you don’t like.

Further reading (the meat of the discussion)

This post is my contribution to the discussion. But the meat of it is out there, on the Net.

Hybrid author Dean Wesley Smith is often quoted in this debate. He operates in both the traditional and indie sides of publishing, which gives his perspective some weight. These two articles pretty much cover things on the “don’t revise” side of the equation:

Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing: #3…Rewriting
This article contains some useful definitions (rewriting vs. redrafting vs. touch-up and spell-check). “One fine evening I was having a conversation with Algis Budrys about rewriting… I asked him if he ever thought rewriting could fix a flawed story. His answer was clear and I remember it word-for-word to this day: ‘No matter how many times you stir up a steaming pile of crap, it’s still just a steaming pile of crap.’ …You have to write new material to learn. No one ever learned how to be a creative writer by rewriting. Only by writing. …Every writer is different, granted, but I have only met a few writers who really, really love to rewrite. Most find it horrid and a ton of work, but we all, with almost no exception, love to write original stuff. If you can get past the myth of rewriting, writing becomes a lot more fun. Following Heinlein’s Rules is a ton of fun, actually. And you end up writing and selling a lot of stuff as well.”

Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing: #6… Selling to a Big Publisher Insures Quality
“Thinking of all traditional fiction publishers as one large great judge of books is just flat wrong. A few people, sometimes less than two or three, are in charge of getting a traditionally published novel out to readers. Sure, there are others along the way, but only the editor, a sales person, and a publisher are the judges of quality of the book. And often one or two of them are missing in the equation. An ugly secret: Very, very often the editor is the only person in a publishing company who has actually read the entire book.”

Some dear peeps in the Christian speculative fiction community have piped up with their thoughts. I appreciate where they’re coming from, even though I approach this subject differently:

Quantity in Sacrifice of Quality
“A major gripe I have with much of the self-publishing community is that they push for authors to get as many books out there as fast as they possibly can… That’s very temping, but I still can’t get over the concern for quality when every single author is trying to do that.” Also see Trust Me, You NEED to Rewrite, same author, along the same lines.

The Speed of Excellence
“It’s the rare artist who can work both fast and clean. Speed begets sloppiness, to varying degrees, depending on the level of talent in the writer to churn out tight drafts.”

If your favorite article on this topic isn’t mentioned below, feel free to contribute it in the comments.

My first taste of the Zombie Bible series (book review)

Death Has Come Up into Our Windows by Stant LitoreI first encountered Stant Litore when he was on The Offbeat Dialogues: Christianity and Speculation, a speculative fiction discussion hosted by Thea van Diepen. I liked his comments. They had depth and did not simply regurgitate things I’d heard others say. I was intrigued by mention of his books, a growing collection called “The Zombie Bible”. As usual, I wondered if this author might have written something similar to the fiction that pours from my heart – a wondrous and unsettling mixture of truth set in a world that does not exist. A world recognizable to the heart, though not to the intellect.

I’m always in search of my people, those who speak with a certain accent of the soul, whose native tongue was learned living in a place not seen by human eyes but found only through a journey of the imagination.

And so I put Death Has Come Up into Our Windows on my Kindle. I devoured it.

And was struck to the heart.

Struck by the beauty of Stant’s prose. Struck by the way he took me into another world, the world of ancient Israel and Babylon’s siege of Jerusalem during the time of the prophet Jeremiah. Struck by the sound of God weeping in the temple, and how the grief of God at the betrayal of his loved ones and at the death that was rampant in the city overwhelmed the one man with ears to hear it.  Imagining what it was like to be alone in that. To be the only one who could hear God’s cry and to be so rejected, so many times.

It is heart-wrenching.

But what about the zombies? Why zombies?

I don’t pretend to speak for the author, but I can tell you what zombies did for me in reading this story. First of all, it prompted me to pick up the book in the first place and read it. This part of Israel’s history is a downer. Have you ever read the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations? Not what I’d pick up for entertainment, if you know what I mean. I don’t go out of my way to read historical stories set during tragic times where I know the ending. Dances with Wolves. Saving Private Ryan.  Grave of the Fireflies. Great movies, perhaps, but ouch! Once was enough.

Then again, I don’t usually read zombie stories, either. I’ve never been a huge horror fan, per se. But that combination intrigued me – “How could zombies and the Bible possibly go together?”

Now, having taken that journey, I see the beauty of this approach. This book takes your heart into the horror and heartbreak of that moment in God’s story (and ours). It breaks open the box placed around the biblical story and re-imagines it for us.

The foreign nature of an ancient city infested by the walking dead disarms our reason, causing our intellect to remove its critical, evaluative hat and put on its imaginative, discovery hat. It is no longer about creating an accurate documentary so much as opening the doors to a fresh encounter with the prophet and the God he devoted his life to. As a Christian, I feel abundantly enriched by this encounter.

Why would I recommend such a book?

I absolutely want to take another journey through Stant’s “Zombie Bible”. Why? Because of what I saw happening inside my heart and mind while I experienced this story. Because of the questions that were raised, that were made so real, so relevant. Where is God when these horrific things are happening? Where are God’s people? Am I willing to be Jeremiah, despite the horror and pain of it? Or am I more like Baruch, who needed a nudge to take action? Or, heaven help me, am I one of the priests hoarding grain while the children starve? Or – God forbid! – sacrificing someone else’s children at the altar of evil because I’m so foolish to think it will buy the safety of my own?

These are questions that are scary, disturbing, unsettling. Uncomfortable. I was willing to enter into the story because it had zombies, because I knew it was “only fiction”. Fiction, yes. Beautiful, haunting and well-crafted fiction. But, praise God, it is not only that.

I would recommend this book to anybody that enjoys horror and especially those who are familiar with bible stories. The story is richer if you are familiar with the history of the people of Israel and their journey. But even without that background or belief, I think the story is a fascinating read, like a glimpse of a fantastical land in which kings and prophets face off and gods vie for the peoples’ devotion.

One note to traditionally-minded Christian readers:

It helped me a lot to remember that the God of the Bible is neither male nor female. Both man and woman are “created in His likeness”.

Yes, he traditionally represents himself as male and when God entered the world in the form of humanity, he came as a male. However, the scriptures also speak of the Spirit of God as the spirit of wisdom, and calls wisdom a “she”. There is, in Jewish tradition, references to the manifest spirit of God – the shekinah – as female.

Awareness of this rarely-mentioned concept may help in accepting the author’s artistic choice to call the presence of God in the temple a “she” and should assist your enjoyment and “willing suspension of disbelief”. I appreciated the chance to stretch my mind and consider the female aspects of my God in this context.

The problem of beauty

Beautiful woman with long legs in red dress by epSos on Flickr

Being human. It’s an issue I’ve wrestled with my whole life. You have, too. Every human being makes decisions about how to approach life. Even the decision to not think about such things and just live by your “instincts” is a decision.

One of the great mysteries of human consciousness (even for science) is why we experience beauty. How is it that our brains are wired such that we perceive some things as beautiful? Sunsets. Butterflies. A horse at a gallop. A towering redwood tree. The nude human form.

Ah, yes. That last one. That one gets tricky. As a human, as a part of the society around you, how will you choose to handle beauty, when you find it? Sunsets and moonrises are “safe” beauty. You can’t take the stars from the sky and put them in your pocket to look at later. But horses, humans and even butterflies can be coveted and then made your own, can’t they? Sometimes beauty leads to lust, the desire to have something for yourself. We don’t ascribe sentience to plants or animals, so most people are at peace with the idea of owning those things.

But what happens when you see somebody beautiful, and you want them for yourself?

It is not beauty’s problem. It is ours.

That’s the topic of this article in Christ & Pop Culture magazine by Alan Noble, Ph.D.: What I Learned about Lust and Beauty from a Flickr Voyeur.

It centers on how we handle beauty, especially in the Christian church. We have tended to see human beauty as a cause for sin, and sometimes by association as sinful in itself. And thus, a beautiful human becomes a reason for resentment or condemnation, rather than celebration and admiration. This affects our relationships with each other, but also our relationship with the creative arts. I’ve posted before about the lack of beauty in some Christian art, and I think this is connected.

A quote from the article that caught my attention:

It may be one of the hardest lessons that I have had to learn, that nearly all my purity efforts were built around denying and even condemning the beauty that God has created. And that’s really just the flipside of what the Voyeur was doing. There are powerful forces in our culture and flesh driving us to view one another as bodies to be owned and captured. And unfortunately, there are also powerful forces in evangelicalism and our own hearts driving us to condemn and resent beauty. The church does well to fight against the abusive vision of sexuality promoted and profited off of by the world, a vision which is fundamentally violent. But we also need a richer theology of beauty and bodies, one which will allow us to preserve the purity of our thoughts and to delight in the beauty of God’s world.

Read the whole thing here: http://christandpopculture.com/learned-lust-beauty-flickr-voyeur/

How do you handle beauty in your life? Do you run away from it? Cover it up? Try not to think about it? Pursue it? Try to make it your own?

What approach to beauty do you think makes for the healthiest human society?

Drop a comment and let’s chat.

Going deeper with God by going with the flow (book review)

I love my relationship with God. He’s here with me in a very real way, and it’s amazing. But I never stop thirsting for more and looking for ways to make our relationship even more amazing. That’s why I was excited to see what Brad Huebert had to say in his new book, Go with the Flow.

“Go with the Flow” by Brad Huebert

I met Brad at a writer’s conference once, and he is a fun guy. But this is the first time I’ve had a chance to read his writing in book form, and I’m glad he invited me to give my honest review in exchange for the book.

The phrase “non-religious” on the cover drew me in immediately. I can’t stand books that try to boil God (or our relationship with Him) down into a formula or put Him in a box. Brad’s writing is easy on the brain, it reads more like a conversation than a sermon.

But despite the cover saying “non-religious”, it wasn’t long before Brad starts outlining this approach to quiet time straight out of the Old Testament!

WHAT? How much more “religious” can you get?!

There was a page or two when I just shook my head and thought, “Yeah, he’s flowing. But he’s flowing in a goldfish bowl, not a river.”

But hang in there – it gets better. This isn’t a formula. I love that we can mine the riches of God’s symbolism in the temple layout and find a structure from which to springboard our quiet time.  tweet this

And that’s what it really is: just a springboard. From there, it’s “to infinity and beyond!”

You want go deeper with God?
Get serious and actually DO what Brad outlines here.
Do it for 2 weeks straight.
I believe you’ll never be the same.

The beauty of this little book is that whether you’ve been a Christian for 50 years or 5 days, you can do this. And because our God is alive and loves to meet with us, you can find Him in this simple yet rich approach and have a wonderful time. And because time with God inevitably brings transformation, you’ll be changed. For the better. And that’s why I gave the book 5 stars — I can recommend it without reservation and trust that God will do something amazing for every single person who actually applies it to his or her life.

Brad HuebertBrad Huebert is a husband, father, new church-planter, author, and geek who loves Jesus like crazy. He lives with his amazing wife, Shauna and three kids in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Brad’s passion is to manifest Jesus Christ—his kingdom, his power, his love, his presence, his gospel… all for his glory. Because when Jesus is manifest… wow.

Website and blog: www.bradhuebert.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/christian.geeks
Twitter: @GeekFaithTribe
Pinterest: http://www.pinterest.com/bradhuebert/

What book or idea has impacted your relationship with God the most? Leave a reply below…