I’ve been corresponding over the last few months with novelist Don Horne. Don’s already broken into self-publishing and now has a lot of enthusiasm for helping other writers get their work in print. He’s started a writer’s group and given talks on self-publishing to help those with less experience. I asked Don to tell the story of how he got started, and here it is. Enjoy.
In the belief I am not the only “newbie” self-publishing wannabe who reads this blog every day, I’d like to offer encouragement—and some tips—to others. Most of these tips are about fiction, but I hope they help.
I majored in English and Journalism in college, I published a weekly newspaper for several years, and I have built web sites for the last ten years. When I decided four years ago to write my first novel, I thought to myself, “I’m a natural for this. How hard can it be?”
The only subject in my boring life that I thought anyone would want to hear about was my experiences in Viet Nam. Even then, I was aboard a carrier, ate warm meals three times a day, and slept in a cool, clean bunk at night. I had friends who had horror stories when they came back: heat, bad food, and someone shooting at them 24/7. Still in all, it was the only subject I came up with to get started.
I wrote my first manuscript in Microsoft Word, dropped it into a trade template from 48hourbooks.com and received my first printed proof. No one was as proud, or as filled with such a sense of accomplishment, than I was. I had my wife take a picture of me holding up that first proof. I ordered 50 books, and we did a book signing at the local Hastings Store in Waxahachie, Texas. I sold 12 books. I was on my way!
Do You Know an Editor?
I have a friend who is a former professional editor. I asked her to read my book and give me a constructive critique, especially on the layout and interior design. Big mistake. She finished reading it, and when she saw me a couple of days later when we met for breakfast, she almost patted me on the head, smiled and said, “You don’t have a clue what you are doing, do you?”
Thoroughly crushed, I choked back my un-manly tears and said, “What? How hard could it be? I ran spell check twice, I read and re-read until I knew what happened on every single page. I know most of the punctuation is correct, and maybe I split an infinitive or two, but it is basically a book! I bought an ISBN number, and I even designed the cover myself using a cropped picture of a beautiful sunset I took over my back fence.”
When she could finally breathe again after laughing at me so hard I was embarassed, she hugged me. “Don, I loved the story. You actually wrote an interesting book. If it is any consolation, it is not the worst-laid out story I have ever read. Many of my C students back when I was teaching would have loved to have been able to call your book their own!”
By then I was struggling to keep from breaking into sobs in front of a woman. She put her arm around my shoulders and smiled the by-now irritating smile, and said, “I’m just kidding. Don’t give up. You show some promise.”
“Oh sure,” I thought, “I can always hand letter yard sale signs.”
“I’ll make a few notes and email them to you,” she said. I waved listlessly as she drove away.
Feedback is Good for You
Sure enough, in a few days she sent me notes on what I did wrong. They were in Word, and were more pages than the book I wrote!
She started with the cover. Although she praised me for making the images at 600 dpi for printing, she hinted I could have found a better photo. She told me if I was not going to use a professional graphic artist, which she always suggests for a new author, to look at other similar books to get ideas. Also, one does not put “By John Doe” on the cover underneath the title.
I was supposed to have dropped the “By” and just put my name. She explained the “By Don Horne” was a dead giveaway that I was an amateur. In fact. she promised, later, after 2 or three million sales, I will be able to put my name at the TOP of the cover and the NAME of the new book under. By then people will be looking for my name first and then the book title. Cool, I thought, I could do that. Then we moved to the interior.
The first page inside the cover is the title page. I got that right. Guess what, there are no numbers on the bottom of the title page. Plus, one should use something as the font for the title, the byline, the author, and the name of the publishing company besides Times New Roman in 14 point.
Here, she said, be bold and daring! Maybe the title could be a bold script, maybe 36 points, which out of 72 points per inch, is 1/2 inch tall, and the byline, or single line about the book, could be in 18 point to differentiate. The author’s name and the publishing company did not have to be the largest font on the page even if I was proud of my accomplishment.
The next page had my ISBN numbers and statement that no one should reproduce my work without paying for it, or at least getting my permission. By then, I would have given away the rights just to see it somewhere. I needed a morale boost.
In her opinion, one should always begin the first chapter on the right, or on an odd-numbered page. She criticized my use of clip art at the top of the pages, and she wanted me to look at the use of a drop cap, or larger font size in bold, to begin the story.
She wanted me to “set the scene” better, even though she did give me a B+ on the dialog. It was believable, though quaint, she said. She did not like: “He stepped up on the porch, opened the door, and went in.” She asked questions about the locale of the house, the weather, was there a dog, did the door creak, was it a screen door, and all of this was under “setting the scene!”
Born to be an Author
By now, dear friends, you must realize this is somewhat tongue in cheek, but as someone who has been there, done that, do not be ashamed to seek professional help. First, for wanting to be an author. Then you need professional help for editing inside and out.
There are hundreds of excellent books, sites, blogs, and so on to learn from, including this one. If you’re going to prove me wrong, and believe you can write an excellent first novel, which will be the Next Great American Novel, don’t let anyone read it! I still go to therapy twice a week in my wife’s Kindergarten writing class!
Photo by Horia Varlan