I’ve been reading a little indie lately. I hate splitting up the two — indie vs. traditionally published. Books should be books no matter who has written them or how they were published and printed.
But I have been reading some books I’ve found on Writer Twitter and in some author Facebook groups.
Even though we shouldn’t separate books by who has written them or how they’ve been published, there is still a little issue of what does make them different.
Indies say taste is subjective and that quality means different things to different people. I certainly say this when it comes to my own writing. But I’m not blind to the issues my books have–especially Don’t Run Away, my first “real” book I count toward my backlist. I’ve gotten good reviews and bad reviews. The bad reviews have a point. I didn’t know as much about plot as I do now. I didn’t have as much practice in character arc as I do now.
And that’s too bad because it’s the start of a trilogy, and I’ve said this before. If you don’t have a strong start to a series, no one will read the others because your readers will assume the other books are more of the same.
But I also have positive reviews suggesting the book isn’t a total train wreck and investing a little money in promos and a little time redoing the covers hopefully won’t be a total waste down the road.
I went into this blog post with the information about my own book to let you know I understand. I understand the mistakes new authors make because I have made them myself.
The problem is, we have to move beyond those mistakes if we hope to attract readers. With six books in my backlist, I’m hoping this is something I can start doing. And soon. Attracting readers that is.
What have I noticed in the indie books I’ve been reading? Here’s a short but important list:
Telling, not showing. I’ve seen this in 99% of the indies I’ve read. In fact, I’ve read it so much I’m willing to go out on a limb and say this is probably the biggest thing that sets indies apart from traditionally published authors. No matter how bad you (or I) think a traditionally published book is, it will never be bad because the culprit is telling.
Telling is 100% an indie problem because a book full of telling will never make it past an agent or an editor at a publishing house.
The book I just ordered has a letter to the reader in the front matter, and she even states she enjoyed being the narrator of her characters’ story. And her book reads exactly like that. Two hundred and fifty pages of her telling us what her characters are doing and feeling.
I’ve worked with some writers in an editing capacity and unfortunately telling is probably the hardest part of writing to stop doing. There are whole books written on showing vs. telling, and I have no interest in writing one. The best way you can stop telling is write a lot, find your voice, listen to feedback, know your telling words, and write more.
- Write a lot. Find your voice. James Scott Bell has a lovely book about finding your voice. He explains it so well it will turn your writing around. It really will.
- Know who your characters are. Who are they as people? Their likes, dislikes. How they react to certain situations. What are their
tragicbackstories? Characters are people, not puppets. Part of finding your voice is knowing how your characters sound when they think and talk and being able to translate that onto paper.
- Know your telling words. Think, thought, feel, felt, see, saw, know, knew, heard, could hear. Felt is horrible. Search for it. In lots of instances just deleting those words will take the telling away.
She realized he was lying to her.
He was lying to her. All this time she’d believed whatever he told her. Now she was paying the price.
We’re already in her point of view. You don’t need to tell your reader she realized he was lying. Just say he was lying to her. We understand she realized it because we’re in her head and she thought it. When you use these words you slip out of your character’s POV.
- If you’re still having a problem, work with an editor or a beta reader. Lots of writers can’t see it in their own work, but they can see telling in other writer’s work. Choose betas and editors who won’t lie to you. The book full of telling I’m reading now? It has 17 4-5 star reviews. That means 17 people lied to her.
Speech tags. I made it to Chapter 4 of a different book. It popped up in my Twitter feed so often I decided to give it a chance. I ordered the paperback, and wow. By Chapter 4, I counted more than 35 speech tags. I couldn’t read any more. I think we’re all victims of speech tags at some point in our careers. I know I was when I wrote Summer Secrets. My editor helped me with a few–but she should have been much, much harder on me. Since I’ve written more and honed my dialogue skills, I rarely use speech tags anymore. If you find you use speech tags, work on stronger actions and better dialogue to evoke emotion. Don’t depend on speech tags for clarity.
Here’s a before and after. Tell me which kind of dialogue you’d like to read for an entire book:
“I did. Just not the way he thought. A couple of goons caught me outside the hospital—” Callie bit off.
“The hospital. Jesus Christ,” Brandon snapped. “Do I have to check myself out and drive up there?”
“No! Just listen to me,” Callie yelped, pulling over in the middle of a residential section. She should’ve driven with Mitch. She had no idea where the police department was and couldn’t use her phone’s GPS while she was talking on it.
“I defended Mitch on the ice a couple days ago,” she stated, “and I dumped one guy on his ass. Tonight he and two of his friends caught me outside the hospital. Mitch happened to be right behind me and stopped them before they could do anything. I’m on the way to the station to give my statement,” she explained.
“Are you hurt?” he asked urgently. “You beating up guys? Callie, you’re supposed to be having tea parties and watching strippers. What the fuck?” he growled.
There are seven speech tags in this little section. They don’t sound terrible, in fact, upon reading this, you might think they actually lend something to the scene. But this is just one small section of a book. When you have a book that’s heavy on dialogue like my books are, reading all those dialogue tags can be tiring.
Look at that section again. These two characters are talking on the phone having a heated discussion. How did the writer make the dialogue sound? Do they sound like real people? A brother and sister who care about each other? Do you need the tags? Most sections of dialogue don’t need tags if you write the characters well enough the readers don’t need to be told who is speaking. Read the same section without tags. Does what they are saying draw you closer in because there’s nothing taking you out of the moment?
“I did. Just not the way he thought. A couple of goons caught me outside the hospital—”
“The hospital. Jesus Christ. Do I have to check myself out and drive up there?”
“No! Just listen to me.” Callie pulled over in the middle of a residential second. She should have driven with Mitch. She had no idea where the police department was and couldn’t use her phone’s GPS while she was talking on it.
“I defended Mitch on the ice a couple days ago, and I dumped one guy on his ass. Tonight he and two of his friends caught me outside the hospital. Mitch happened to be right behind me and stopped them before they could do anything. I’m on the way to the station to give my statement.”
“Are you hurt? You beating up guys? Callie, you’re supposed to be having tea parties and watching strippers. What the fuck?”
Sound better? If not, that’s cool.
Exercise: Take a book you particularly enjoyed. Find a dialogue section (the longer the better) and count how many tags the author used. You might be surprised.
Nothing is happening, or the author tries to make a big deal out of nothing. I did this with Don’t Run Away, much to my sincere regret. I made Dane make a big deal about being married before and how nasty his divorce had been. And now I look back and think, who cares? Everyone goes through a divorce (or it seems like it, anyway), and yes, those divorces can be nasty. Especially when kids are involved. I understand small things can be a big deal, but they should still be only a small piece of the whole puzzle. And readers have called me out on it, calling Dane a weak character for not being able to move past his divorce. That’s what the book was about, but I still should have made him more ready to be in a relationship than I did. Or made Nikki smarter so she steered clear of him.
In the book where I only reached Chapter 4, all the characters had done up until that point was sit around and talk. And not about anything particularly interesting. Ask for feedback from someone who won’t lie to you. If the beginning of your book is boring, if there’s nothing happening, no one is going to get to the part where it finally does.
If you have a too slow of a start, people will bail before they get to the good stuff. If you want help with your first pages, read Your First Page by Peter Selgin. He walks you through what will make your first pages pop!
Bad formatting. I buy paperbacks because when it’s slow at work, I can read. We’re not allowed tablets, but I prefer paperbacks anyway. That being said, a lot of paperbacks I see are a mess inside, and all I can think is I hope to God they never host a book signing or do a giveaway on Goodreads. Maybe authors don’t put much time into their formatting because they don’t think they’ll sell many books. But the problem is, you will sell some at a convention, or you’ll want them for giveaways, or you may want to stock them at your indie bookstore. If the manager of that bookstore flipped open a poorly formatted book, he’d probably tell you to fix it first. Draft2Digital has a free paperback formatting tool. Or give someone a $25 gift card to Amazon and ask they do it on their Vellum software.
It’s a sad fact that you could have the most entertaining story in the whole world but no one will want to read it if your book doesn’t look like a book inside. I struggled with this too, when I published 1700. I cried, literally, until someone reminded me about the KDP Print template. Back then it was CreateSpace, but they do offer a free interior template. There weren’t the easy and free tools available there are today. (It’s crazy how the industry has changed, even in three years.) Even if you don’t know how, there is no reason why your book should look like a mess. And if you really can’t find the means to format a paperback book, you’d be one step ahead not offering one at all.
These are only four things I’ve found in the latest indie books I did not finish (or DNF in shorthand), but they are doozies and enough to turn away any reader. In the case of the woman whose book is all telling–she’s putting herself in a tough spot. She wants to write a series, but she’s waiting to see if her first book takes off before working on a second. Her book will never take off, but not for the reasons she thinks. It’s too bad.
Reading indie is a valuable experience. I love to support my friends, and of course, there are some fabulous writers out there making a living off their books.
The issues I’ve outlined can be fixed over time by studying craft and writing a lot. It’s not a coincidence that a lot of indie books I find fault with are an author’s first book.
We all mess up our first book. Unfortunately it’s a really important book. You can’t build on a crumbling foundation.
What are some things that you’ve noticed in indie books? Anything that has turned you off?
Let me know!
Thanks for reading!
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