When the First Book in Your Self-Published Series Is the Weakest

shutterstock_186735257Once upon a time I decided to write a young adult fantasy novel. I spent hours plotting, writing, editing, rewriting. There were dozens of beta readers, five major rewrites of the entire story (and countless minor rewrites), and the help of a professional editor. The result was a decent book that I’m proud of, the first book in The Conjurors Series.

I’m now writing the fourth (and last) book in the series, and to say that my writing has evolved would be an understatement. Reading the first book makes me shake my head and sigh at how naïve I was. I’m not claiming to be Shakespeare now, but the act of spending hundreds of hours writing thousands of words has made me a better writer.

The only problem is that readers’ introduction to my writing is the first book of the series – which is the weakest. Below are some of the ways I’ve seen this problem tackled.

Give your first book away for free.
I’m a follower of Lindsay Buroker’s blog, and she was one of the early self-publishers to make the first book in her series, permanently free. She feels that it was a great way to build her fan base and gain the significant following that her writing now has. In my opinion, though, the first book in her series is actually pretty great – her writing just gets that much better. So this option works if your first book is at least good enough to hook readers and get them to continue to read an become more invested in your writing. Also, with so many freebies out there now, having a free book doesn’t have the same impact that it did in the past.

Give your series away for free.
This may sound crazy, but it’s a bolder move. Lots of people give away a book, but an entire series? If you already have your next set of books in the works, it can be an aggressive way to build a fan base. If you’re in the self-publishing route for the long haul and are a fairly prolific writer, consider giving a huge incentive to readers for trying your writing.

Rewrite your first book.
Rewriting (yet again) your first book will be acute torture, take it from someone who has been there, done that. I had limited success with rewriting the book to bring it up to par with the rest of the series, because too many plot points were already embedded through the series. Any changes I made had to be threaded through the rest of the books, and it was exhausting. The end result was a story that was marginally better, but still not as good as the rest of the series. However, if your first book is freestanding, bite the bullet and rewrite it. If there are scenes you can rewrite, go for it. I also recommend cutting as much as you can to make the story short and sweet.

Cut your losses and start a new series.
I considered pulling my books off Amazon, abandoning my heroine and starting a new series, but something is compelling me to finish telling the story that I started. Even if this series never amounts to anything more than a lot of my time and sweat, and a few readers who enjoyed it (thanks, Mom!) Valerie’s journey must be completed. I’ve learned a lot, and as excited as I am to start the next series, it feels right to close this chapter first. But if you are less attached to your story, keep in mind the idea of sunk costs – sometimes it’s better to look forward at what you could be accomplishing instead of investing more time in a series that isn’t going to benefit your writing or your career.

Is anyone else in the same boat, with a series that has gotten progressively better, but is held back by a weak first book?

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Waiting to Self-Publish

A couple of months ago I decided to accept that I needed an official cover artist, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Recently I also accepted that it was time to hire a professional editor as well. Coming to terms with spending the money was the first hurdle (along with accepting that I couldn’t do it all myself). But the second hurdle is the waiting.

The editor I’ve chosen is popular (with good reason) so I’ve had to put my plans for unrolling the rewritten first book in The Conjurors Series, along with the almost-finished second book until 2014. That means that the entire series might come out in the same year. It’s so hard to hold back my beautiful new cover and rewrites until I’m really ready to promote the series. It’s also hard to keep the momentum going to begin writing the third book in the series as well, which I planned to release in the late spring/early summer.

All newbie mistakes, I suspect. But it does leave me wondering what other surprises are in store for me in the beguiling world of self-publishing.

For those who have self-published a book, what unexpected hurdles did you run into?

When to Stop Editing

I can admit it – I’m addicted to editing. I’ve rewritten the first chapter of one of my novels so many times that all of the versions start to blur together. Sometimes the changes are relatively minor, but I can’t help thinking of better and better ways to begin, and end up with a completely different opening scene. I’ve added and deleted prologues, and added an epilogue only to question whether it disrupts the flow of the primary narrative.

So my question is, how do you know when your story is good enough? I think I’ll always come up with new ideas that I want to incorporate, but unless I want to end up with one unfinished manuscript at the end of my life, at some point I have to stop and move on.

When I reach this point, I know I have to share my story with people who I trust. They will inevitably  have suggestions of their own, but I can tell by the type of feedback whether or not I’m close. When you hear that an entire character isn’t working, or a section / aspect of the book is slow or doesn’t make sense, I keep rewriting. Or if several readers are taking forever to finish the story, that’s a red light – obviously it isn’t holding their interest enough to finish quickly. But when the suggestions start to get minor, details that need to be sharpened, I make the edits and move on.

So I know it’s time to finally let go of that first chapter. Time to close the file, admit it’s done and start dreaming up new worlds.

Tackling the Art of Revision

“to write is human, to edit is divine” – Stephen King, On Writing

Picture1It’s time to revise the second book in The Conjurors Series, and I must admit that I’m thrilled. Other than creating the plot outline of a story or series, my next favorite step in the writing process is editing. I love connecting the dots, deleting the excess baggage, and even fixing the grammar. It is a restful period after the mental weightlifting that is writing the first draft. Some days I edit a page or a scene, and others I make it through chapters at a time.

Being a creature who loves to research the best ways of doing everything, I began to look into the best way to approach the editing process. I was surprised to find that there wasn’t a lot of insight out there from my favorite authors, like J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and Cassandra Clare. I think maybe that’s because editing is an intensely personal process that is different for every writer.

I read a cool article in the Boston Globe about how the modernists changed the way that we edit today. Back in Shakespeare’s day, when there were no computers (or typewriters, for that matter), authors would put pen to page, write carefully, and call it a day. The modernists, like Hemingway and Eliot, would write and rewrite, sometimes 10-12 drafts. The end product often looked nothing like the original draft. As tempting as it is to want to go back to the days of writing well the first time, I suspect that the way writers think has fundamentally changed. We can’t go back to a simpler time, and I for one am going to embrace it.

What’s worked for me is first and foremost getting others to read my first draft. I had a lot of success with the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror when I wrote the first book in The Conjurors Series. For book two I have a trusted group of readers whose opinions I trust. Their advice is invaluable in helping me take my work to the next level at both a micro and macro level. They always think of things that would never have crossed my mind, no matter how carefully I edited my work.

I also focus on sections of the story that I know are crucial moments to make sure every word is just right.Then I look at the bigger picture, referring back to my outline to make sure all of the plot connections are in place and that my themes and mood are carried throughout the story.

I’m always on the lookout for new techniques, so let me know – what works best for you when you’re in editing mode?