One of the Perks of Self-Publishing

So, The Ascent of PJ Marshall has been on the virtual shelves for a few months now, and the early reviews are in. But before I get to those, let’s back up a bit.

Back when I was writing Marshall’s original draft (there were many along the way that were mercifully put down) I was eager to see what others thought of my writing and story telling. But after my wife, Elizabeth, read what I thought (at the time) was a respectable piece of literature, (sorry honey) it was a rude awakening indeed. As any writer will probably tell you, nothing can open your eyes to problems with your work like honest, detailed feedback. (thanks honey)

A few of these problems: stilted dialogue, weak characters, non-sensical plot lines, poor character motivations and so on. It was, in essence, unreadable. And until a pair of fresh eyes saw all this, I thought I was the goddamn reincarnation of Shakespeare. It was a total buzzkill, but absolutely what I needed.

An example of what Beth had to endure:

In this passage, PJ (the protagonist) is recalling a conversation with Ann (a secondary character, renamed Anna in later drafts) about her employment with an environmental non-profit and Butch’s (PJ’s father) involvement with her group. Try to stay awake…

“…he had learned that Ann joined Earth Justice shortly after graduation from Georgetown with a degree in marketing. She explained how she became so discouraged by American consumerism that she vowed to use her education to fight what she saw as one of the driving forces behind past, present and future environmental crises. In Earth Justice, she met people who shared this view and Ann helped to make ‘economic responsibility’, as she called it, one of their leading causes.

“PJ had patiently struggled with her argument that the conventional economic wisdom of using cheap resources and labor coupled with minimal government regulation is deeply flawed. In addition to placing profits to stockholders over worker’s rights and economic equality, the system ignores the environmental externalities, like air and water pollution, resource depletion and habitat destruction. Earth Justice’s goal is to promote the idea of an economy based not on ever-increasing profits and growth, but on more sustainable grounds, as infinite resource extraction and growth is impossible. PJ could respect the argument that they were trying to make, but he had serious doubts that the problem was as serious as claimed, and their solutions seemed rash at best, un-American at worst.

“The point was moot for PJ, however, as his focus was on finding his father.”

(Really really sorry, honey)

I mean…what the hell was that? If the point of all the soap-boxing is moot, why are you boring me with it? If you want to bitch about stuff, write to your senator. And not only are you boring me with all this shit, you’re remembering all this shit instead of having the actual the conversation. A blatant violation of the “show don’t tell” rule for effective writing. Ugh.

So…back to the drawing (key) board. And after a few years (that’s right, years) of writing, reading, re-writing, reading and writing some more I unleashed on my team of brave beta readers a version of Marshall that was much closer to its present state. Although the general consensus (I think) was that it was readable and somewhat engaging, it was not without its problems.  Among these were issues of character motivation, continuity and realism of the story and dialogue attribution, among others.

This brings me to one of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve heard regarding reviews or opinions. It goes something like this:

If everyone flags the same issue, you’ve got a problem. If everyone flags a different issue, you’re probably ok.

More of a guideline than a rule, of course, but one I tend to follow more often than not when editing my writing. So, after addressing the common issues raised by my team, I did a final polish on the manuscript and released it to the world. (after a lengthy battle in the agent-publishing trenches–the topic of a future post, perhaps)

Which takes us to the topic at hand: those early reviews. Whether by formally posted reviews or personal discussions with readers, quite a few comments and critiques have come in, and like in the beta-testing phase, these are of all stripes. There were two problems with the book, however, that fell into the “everyone flagging the same issue” category. Not literally everyone, but a statistically significant number.

Caution: mild spoiler alert…

“What happened to Butch?” was a question I’ve heard a handful of times. The first couple made me return to the book to check my handling of the issue. Though somewhat vague and off-hand, I felt Butch’s fate was addressed well enough, thank you very much. But as this same question kept cropping up,  I started to really take note. With Butch’s disappearance and PJ’s search being central themes of the novel, I realized that I owed it to the reader to  bring these to a satisfying resolution. (or unsatisfying, opinions vary) But resolution nonetheless.

The second (and by far the most common) problem readers had with the book dealt with keeping track of the point of view (POV) shifts between the protagonist and antagonist.

And now, as promised, One of the Perks of Self-Publishing. With Marshall available only in ebook and POD (print on demand) paperback formats, there is no physical inventory to worry about when releasing new editions, so changes to the content or format of the book is much less problematic.

After years of writing and rewriting, I was somewhat averse to tinkering with the book once I had finally declared it finished, but these issues were clearly too important not to address. As a result, I made the decision to update future copies of Marshall with the following:

  • A couple of sentences clarifying Butch’s fate
  • Chapter headings containing the POV character’s name (ala George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series
  • Retooled cover art and back cover copy. (This was all me–I’d been wanting to change the cover for some time, so I figured this would be a good time. See side by side comparison below.)

Original                                               New

IMG_4089cover_2ndED-002

I’m pretty happy with how this second edition turned out, but if you’re so inclined, let me know what you think. I’m especially interested in what folks think of the new cover. To all who provided feedback and asked the important questions, THANK YOU! Not only does the new self-publishing environment make adapting to issues like this easier for the author, but I would venture to say it makes for an improved product for the reader.

Thanks for reading!

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