Can I be honest about your writing? (Part 4 – Pray thee, Joseph, 4 Y do these books suck?)

Blame the editor. Sometimes.

Part 1 – Oh, the Vanity of it all! of this multi-post arc dealt with some folks I knew who vanity published their books back when we called vanity publishers “vanity publishers”.
Part 2 – Vanity/Self-Publishing provided an overview of Vanity and Self publishing.
Part 3 – What Camp Are You In? identified four reasons people consider self-publishing.

What is my definition of “suck”?

Glad you asked because I’m not talking genre. I read poetry, genre, non-fiction, biography, … take a look at my Goodreads reviews. Do a title sort and you’ll see I read books all across the board. Titles beginning with “A” breakdown as follows:

  • Archeology – 1
  • Biography – 1
  • Classics – 1
  • Fantasy – 3
  • Humor – 3
  • Literary Analysis – 2
  • Literary Fiction – 2
  • Marketing – 1
  • Mystery – 3
  • Psychology – 2
  • Science Fiction – 5
  • Social Commentary – 3
Storytelling deals with “Do you have an interesting story to tell?”, storycrafting deals with “Can you tell your story in an interesting way?”


My definition of suck is both subjective and objective. The subjective side I mentioned in Great Opening Lines – and Why! (Part 2 -What Makes a Great Opening Line?); I can sum it up as “The sooner my internal editor kicks in, the more the piece I’m reading sucks.”

Ah, solipsism. It’s not just for breakfast any more!

The objective side has to do with storycrafting more than storytelling. Storytelling deals with “Do you have an interesting story to tell?”, storycrafting deals with “Can you tell your story in an interesting way?” and note that while both are subjective, the latter can be codified (ever read a book on writing? Such books are codifications of good writing/storycrafting. You may not agree with what’s in such books and at least they offer some rules for good writing).

You can have a fascinating story to tell but tell it so poorly people would rather commit seppuku than read another word. Likewise, you can tell a boring story so well people pay attention and want to know more.

I look for a good balance. The Margaret Atwood novels I’ve read are beautifully written. Too beautifully written for me, though. The writing is so good that I notice the writing, not the story. Lots of capital-L literature does that to me. I recognize the beautiful writing and learn technique from it but I don’t care about the characters, the plot or much else happening between the covers.

Not good.

I wish I could write that most of the self-published books I encounter have that problem: beautifully written but uninteresting story. Such is not the case. Often the stories are fascinating. I’d simply rather gouge my eyes out than read another page. The writing is of such poor quality my internal editor kicks in before I finish the first sentence.

I’ve talked with many self-pubbed authors. Mostly nice people. Most of whom can’t write. All have interesting stories to tell, they simply don’t know how to tell them in an engaging, entertaining way.

“But I used an editor!”
I hear that a lot from people who ask me about their writing.

My response is something like “Good. Glad to hear it.”

Questions arise, though. One fellow used an editor who’s written and published several books. Not in his genre, though, and not recently (the editor’s last published book was in the 1970s. When I asked the editor’s name the writer hesitated. He wasn’t sure they were still alive. I’m serious!). The editor was good at grammar, spelling, and punctuation, not at story-telling or -crafting.

Lots of self-pubs I’ve talked with tell me about their favorite editor, someone they’ve worked with for a while and how good said editor is.

I probe a bit further and learn said editor isn’t doing anything to increase the writer’s skills, to further their career, to drive them forward, to make them better. Said editor(s) basically check for grammar, spelling, punctuation, all of which are good (it’s called copyediting. Before self-publishing came around copyediting was done in-house by the publisher) and from which you’ll learn grammar, spelling and punctuation if you pay attention.

You won’t learn storycrafting or storytelling. The former requires someone who knows how to craft a story (or at least recognize craft in a story) and is vested in your career. The latter requires someone who knows how to tell a story and is vested in your career.

Again we run into the differences between traditional print publishing and self-publishing, micropublishers (mostly POD houses) and the like. Traditional houses had employees who knew storycrafting and storytelling. They were called editors (not to be confused with line editors, copyeditors, and the like, god love ’em, authors couldn’t survive without them).

The big difference being that such editors

  • were employees of the publisher
    • meaning the publisher had a payroll to meet
      • meaning the publisher had a serious interest in publishing books that would turn a profit
        • meaning said editors had a serious interest in making sure author and publisher put out a quality product
      • because their jobs were on the line if your book seriously sucked
    • because the publisher/their employer would go out of business if they put out crap
  • hence would be out of work if they didn’t know their job.

You’re self-pubbed and have an editor you like? Ask them if they’ll take 1% of your royalties instead of whatever they charge to edit your book.

Yeah. Good luck with that. (My editor did agree to such a deal. My editor also works at improving her skills)

The closest thing self-pubs currently have to such editors are critique groups. As I mention in my interview, you want a critique group with people who can critique your story – not report their feelings about your story – and provide ways to improve/fix the elements that concern them. You may have a publisher (including the large houses) with an editing staff and, from what I’ve seen on shelves, that level of editing often sucks.

The biggest challenge for self-pubs and wannabes is that fish don’t know they live in water – they don’t know what a well edited book is so whatever level of editing they receive is, by definition, good.


Next up – examples of crap.