Rookie Mistakes: If You’re a Writer, Read My Words of Advice That I Found Out the Hard Way

This past week has been an absolutely grueling one for me.  I’ve been preparing my book The Madness of Art: Short Stories for paperback publication myself, and spent more than 30 hours staring at my computer, correcting formatting errors and fixing typos.  In the process, I had so much stress and anxiety that by the time I finished I had a headache that lasted two days.  In hindsight, I now realize that much of that could have been easily avoided.  If you’re a writer, professional or otherwise, do yourself a favor and read my tips on turning your manuscript into a finished project without all of the headaches.

1)  Make sure that proofreading your manuscript is the first and last thing you do
Whenever I do any serious writing, I’ll finish a first draft, then immediately proofread it for typos, grammatical errors and so on.  After that, I’ll write a second draft, and if I’m not happy with it, I’ll write a third, fourth, or even fifth draft.  In the drafting process, I’ll cut out entire paragraphs, add descriptions, and tighten the dialogue.  The mistake I made with my book was, after drafting it so many times, I didn’t think to go back and proofread some of the stories afterwards.  Embarassingly, I then went ahead and published my book as an ebook, not realizing there were a handful of typos in it.  For example, one of the stories involves a piece of third-grade math that I somehow had got wrong–by a whole 100.  So just yesterday I went and uploaded a revised file online, fixing the typos, and thankfully not many people bothered to buy my book earlier (a weird thing to be thankful for).

2) Do extensive online research on the working title of your manuscript.
When I was writing the stories that I later assembled for my book The Madness of Art: Short Stories, I was unsure of what I wanted to title it.  I knew that the title had to have something to do with art, because every story in it takes artistry as a theme.  I batted ideas around for a while, and even considered using some titles that, looking back, were pretty lousy.  I was originally going to call my book “The Lives of the Art,” which was a pun on Vasari’s classic book The Lives of the Artists.  I figured then that the title was too silly and that most people wouldn’t get the reference to a 16th century Italian book.

Anyways, later on I came across the Henry James short story The Middle Years, which has a famous line ending with “…the rest is the madness of art.”  At that point, it clicked in my head that that would be my title.  It seemed appropriate.  In my book, a few characters do lose their minds and many of the characters are artists.  I quickly googled it and saw there was 1 book titled The Madness of Art, but it was a scholarly book, whereas mine was The Madness of Art: Short Stories, so I didn’t think there’d be too much confusion.  What I didn’t realize until after I published it as an ebook is that there’s also a British TV show called The Madness of Art.  I’ve never seen the show, and hadn’t heard of it before.  If that wasn’t enough, if you look up my book on Amazon, it will sometimes appear right next to a book titled Sodomy: A Dark, Debauched Tale of Erotic Madness.  I wish I was joking.  As much as I like the title of my book, if I could go back in time and change it, I would.  So if you’re going to publish any sort of book, look up your title on several different search engines.  Keep in mind that people are likely going to find your book online, as around half of book sales now are through the internet.

3)  Learn How to Use Your Word Processor to the Best of Your Abilities
A big part of why it took me so long to prepare my book for print was that I wasn’t very acquainted with the technology.  I’ve been using word processors for years now, both Microsoft Word and now Apple iWork.  I thought I had a pretty good understanding about them, but it turns out there’s a lot of thing I didn’t know.  If you’re going to publish a book yourself, you’re going to want to learn how to use every part of your word processor.  There’s a few things you’ll have to learn, such as how to change page sizes, how to have page numbers start a few pages into the book (so that your title page or copyright page isn’t numbered), how to turn your document into a PDF, when to use a page break, when to use a section break, how to set the indentation, and how to preview your document to see how others will view it.  Keep in mind, you’re most likely going to want your title page and the first page of your novel to appear on the right, which means they need to be on odd numbered pages.  In the future, I’ll write up a long guide to formatting your document, because that’s the hardest part.

4)  If there’s anything you’re not 100% sure of, look it up.
There’s two types of typos.  The first type is the common type: typos involving widely used words.  There’s all sorts of guides on how to avoid these out there.  Some common mistakes include using “they’re” instead of “their,” or “saw” in place of “seen.”  Odds are, these are the type of typos you’ll easily rectify on your first time proofreading it.  The second type of typos are harder to detect: typos involving rare words.  It was only when I recently went through the text of my book with a critical eye that I spotted a large amount of small errors.  These are the kind of things that most people wouldn’t notice, but some would.  For example, I had the wrong declension of the Latin form of tyrant.  Instead of putting “tyrannis” I put “tyrannus” meaning tyrants.  Would people have noticed this mistake?  Outside of scholars, most would not, but it’s still something that can be a blotch on your art.  One of the strangest mistakes I made involved the word krone.  The krone is a type of Norwegian currency.  My story The Scream is set in Norway, and it mentioned “krones” several times.  When I did my final draft, I looked up the krone and found out the plural form isn’t krones, it’s “kroner.”  If I hadn’t looked it up, I would have never known krones were actually kroner, and there would be a whole nation of people to point out my mistake.

5) Generate buzz about your book before it comes out
It was only a few days after I published my book as an ebook on Amazon and Barnes and Noble that I started to advertise it.  The reason why this happened was that I published it just a week or so after finding out I could do so without spending a large sum of money.  In the excitement, I very likely missed out on an opportunity to make better sales.  If you’re going to publish a book, tell people ahead of time and make advertisements that show up online.  Create anticipation for your book by setting a date people can count down to.  You’ll want to get at least a handful of sales right away.  On Amazon as well as on the Barnes and Noble webpage, there’s hundreds of thousands of books available that haven’t got much of any sales.  On your product page, your book’s sales rank will appear.  When I brought out my book on Amazon, it’s starting rank was around 800,000.  Then, after a while I got just a few sales and my rank moved up to 300,000.  It’s since dropped to somewhere around 400,000.  The sooner you get sales, the sooner your rank will rise.  As it only takes a few sales to move it up a huge amount, you may want to consider simply buying ten copies yourself and selling them directly to people.

6) Don’t put too much faith in your word processor
I realize this might sound contradictory, but when you’re putting together the final product of your piece of writing, it’s best to distance yourself from the help your word processor provides.  A lot of people assume the best way to write is to have the word processor check spelling and grammar.  There’s two big flaws with this.  One, word processors don’t have a perfect vocabulary.  Often, a word processor will tell you that you’ve spelled a word wrong, when really you’ve just used a word that it doesn’t recognize.  Second, having the word processor correct your grammar actually puts you at a disadvantage because it’s too good.  Sure, it’ll tell you when you’ve broken a grammatical rule, but some rules are meant to be broken.  Most fiction authors use incomplete sentences at times, and sometimes grammar can get in the way.  Remember, grammar is a means for an end, and not an end in itself.  If you have a sentence that isn’t perfectly grammatical, but you can perfectly comprehend it, then that sentence might just be fine the way it is.  For this, use your better judgment.

7) Remember it’s easy to make mistakes
Even if you’re a genius or a scholar, some mistakes are unavoidable.  For example, F. Scott Fitzgerald was known for turning in manuscripts rife with misspellings and misused words, and the first edition of James Joyce’ masterpiece Ulysses is said to have had 1.5 typos per page on average.  For some people, it’s their whole job to fix typos and grammatical errors or format books.  If you’re in a position like I was where you couldn’t afford to hire a professional, then you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, but be patient, and don’t publish your book too hastily.

My book should be coming out in paperback sometime in the next few days.  To find out more, click here.  I just rereleased it in ebook form with all of the above-mentioned issues sorted out.  Writing the book was a pleasure.  Fixing it was torture.

Also, you may benefit from reading my articles about avoiding writer’s block and writing interesting dialogue.

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One thought on “Rookie Mistakes: If You’re a Writer, Read My Words of Advice That I Found Out the Hard Way

  1. And since you are talking about typos — the line after your comment about “Henry James” has a typo. You typed “by” instead of “be”.

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