But do indie-authors who are in the habit of handling so many aspects of the writing process on their own really need to work with editors and book designers? If so, why? Heard was honored to interview experienced editor/writer Melissa Erin Jackson and book designer/writer E.M. Tippetts regarding these very questions and more. Their responses are valuable to anyone interested in writing as an indie-author or in becoming a traditionally published author! We'll begin with Melissa's interview below.
Melissa: I think I’ve always done better with the written word over the spoken word. I was one of those weird girls in high school who was more apt to send a boy a long letter than, you know, trying to talk to him.
I started writing “seriously” in college. I majored in biology and found myself missing writing papers. I took the occasional comp lit class, but it wasn’t until I sat down to write my own stories that I realized how much of an escape it can be. I loved getting lost in other worlds with trolls and fairies when I needed a break from physics and organic chemistry. I love the idea of being able to create something someone else can get lost in. If I can save someone from the horrors of organic chemistry—even for only a few hours—I call that a win.
Melissa: I’ve been in several writing groups over the years and realized I enjoy offering critique just as much as I enjoy writing itself. Plus, several critique partners suggested I try editing professionally, so their encouragement was the final push.
I was secretly giddy when friends came to me with plot problems so we could brainstorm ideas. Developmental editing is definitely my favorite part of the process now…looking at the big picture of a story and smoothing out any inconsistencies or filling in plot holes. On a selfish level, helping people work through rough patches in their writing also helps me become a better writer.
Melissa: Voice! If who the character is can come through strongly just in the way they “talk” to me, I’m likely going to remember them. I think people often assume a “voicey” character is a sarcastic smart-mouth, or a really self-deprecating one, but a character can have voice even if they’re shy. The more you know your character, the more their voice will start to take over. We, as people, all have our own voices, so our characters should, too.
Also? Humor. If you can make me laugh, I’m usually sold.
Melissa: On the technical side of things, I see a lot of punctuation mistakes. Dialogue punctuation is confusing, to be sure! It’s always worth it to give yourself a little refresher on dialogue punctuation, as it can be a time-consuming task for your line editor to fix.
Aside from that, a common issue I come across is the flow of dialogue. Read your dialogue out loud to yourself. Does it sound natural? Think about how you talk differently to a boss or teacher versus talking to your best friend or significant other. Your level of formality (or how many curse words you can cram into a three-minute conversation!) will change. Your use of slang will change. Also? Embrace contractions! Unless you’re going for more stilted dialogue in, say, a period piece, people are going to use contractions when they speak. “I do not want to go to the party this evening” sounds far more formal than “I don’t want to go tonight.” The way someone says something can change the entire tone of a conversation and the scene it’s in.
Melissa: I have a saying…“Real life doesn’t have to make sense, but fiction does.” Create rules for the world you’re working in and stick to them. How many times have you read a book or watched a movie and shouted, “That makes no sense!” or “But if she could do XYZ before, why doesn’t she just do that now?”
Just like we can’t flap our arms and fly away—because gravity—in this world, your fantasy world needs rules and limitations like ours does. This is especially true for worlds with magic in it. What are the limitations to your magic system? What constraints are there on your character in their world? If the details of the world make sense, then the conflicts your character deals with will seem grounded and realistic even if there are flying cars or man-eating robots.
When there are holes in the worldbuilding and/or the execution of the plot, that’s when things don’t line up. Or a plot thread starts to unravel. A character who can do XYZ all through the story, for example, but suddenly can’t at the end because the writer painted herself into a corner. Then she has to break the rules of her own world to get to a conclusion that suits her far more than it suits her readers or characters.
This is what beta readers are for! Ask (beg!) them to poke holes in all your logic until the foundation of your world is so solid that your readers get lost in the pages and forget they’re reading.
Melissa: I’m going to go off-script for a second and mention the worst one I’ve heard first: Write Every Day. Now, this in itself isn’t bad advice if you have the opportunity to be a full-time writer. But most of us aren’t there (yet!). I think I don’t like this bit of advice because there’s this underlying, “…and if you don’t, you’re a failure!” that goes with it. As if us insecure creatures need more reasons to beat up on ourselves.
So my amended piece of advice is: write where you can, when you can.
I do think it’s a mistake to only write when you’re feeling inspired (The opposite of “Write every day”). I don’t know about you, but I have a love/hate relationship with writing. When I’m not able to do it, I love it and miss it. When I have the time, I avoid it as actively as I can (or, more commonly, I complain about it to anyone who will listen). If I were to wait only for my “I love writing!” feeling to line up with my time to do it, I would scarcely get anything done.
For those of you who are often on the go and also attached to your phone? Try jotting things down in your notes app. Even if you only get a couple of paragraphs out a day on your lunch break or standing in line at the store, that’s a handful of paragraphs you wouldn’t otherwise have. I’m a dog walker by day and have actually written entire chapters on my phone while also exercising dogs. Without my notes app, I’d still be struggling to finish my most recent novel.
Find what works for you—no matter how weird it might seem—and keep at it. You’ll get there eventually.
E.M. Tippetts: Aside from the obvious advantage of having someone with visual art training to design your cover, another major advantage is to have someone with some professional distance. Emily is a cover designer, but doesn't design her own covers if she can avoid it because she feels she's too close to the project to be able to pinpoint what the main selling points are and how the book should be presented. Your cover is essentially a poster ad for your book, and should convey to a reader at a glance a wealth of information, specifically 1) what genre the book is; 2) what the tone of the work is; and 3) what books your work is similar to. The cover should also work at thumbnail size, since that's how most readers will see it when browsing for ebooks - but that doesn't mean the title needs to be legible at that size. The title is always displayed right next to the cover. Instead what that means is that the genre and feel of the book should be discernible when the cover is small, so it may be the image is the one thing that shows up at that size.
It helps to have a graphic designer who specializes in book covers because there are a few tricks of the trade that only the specialists know. Book cover designers orient images differently, so as to encourage readers to pick a book up and swipe it open. And book cover designers know the genres, know the genre norms, and therefore know how to convey this information in your cover.
E.M. Tippetts: Any reputable designer should have a portfolio, or their company at least should have a portfolio. At our company, we've got an extensive portfolio and Linda is building her own, individual portfolio within that right now. You want a designer with specific experience in book cover design. In our case, Emily's designed book covers for years and supervises Linda, who is building up her experience in cover design.
It's also worth networking with other authors in your genre to find out who their designers are. That is where you learn valuable information, such as who is easy to work with and who is a nightmare. Who delivers the product on time and who goes AWOL for weeks at a time. If you find a designer who you haven't heard about elsewhere, it's perfectly acceptable to contact their other clients (who you can find out from the above mentioned portfolio) to ensure they're a good designer.
E.M. Tippetts: A lot of designers offer premade covers at a discount. These are already designed covers that just need the title and author name put on them. Also, you can save money by using stock art and photos, rather than paying for custom photos and art. It's perfectly reasonable to ask your designer where they get stock art from, and if they pay more than you'd like, go buy the stock art yourself and provide it to them. You can also sometimes find bargains on custom art on deviantart.com
Work that is more expensive includes processes like photo manipulation and compositing, where the designer does a lot of work to make a photograph look like a painting, or puts two or more images together to make a new image, i.e. putting a person from one picture onto a background from another. Simple photographs with more minimal Photoshopping will require less labor. You also may decide to just release your book as an ebook first, and in that case you need only pay for an ebook cover. Make sure to check with your designer about whether or not you can have it expanded into a paperback cover later.
Newer graphic designers are also cheaper, so if you see a design firm that you love, you can ask if there is a junior designer there who works for lower rates.
E.M. Tippetts: You can reach Linda directly at email@example.com. A link to our portfolio is on our website: www.emtippettsbookdesigns.com. And you can email Linda, or our general email (firstname.lastname@example.org) at any time with any questions. We're always happy to answer those, without any expectation that you hire us.