Monday, March 19, 2012

Amateurs Need Not Apply: Being a professional writer

In January, Nick Mamatas wrote about advice people should stop giving to writers, and #1 on the list was a kick in the gut to many.

1. Don't Give Up
Consider your audience. Who are you telling not to give up? The illiterates, the douchebags, the certifiable graphomanics, the people who think watching a movie is the same as reading a book? Some people should give up. Most people should give up. Find out whether someone has any potential first before arbitrarily telling someone to waste years of their lives, and worse, moments of the lives of editors who have to look at their nonsense.

I agree with some of Nick's points wholeheartedly. Other points, I can only agree with within a certain context. Initially, I thought about responding to some of the points I didn't completely see eye to eye on, but over time, I realized that the real issue with advice to writers is that it often lacks common sense. Nick's first point underscores that. Why are people running around, telling aspiring writers to follow their dream, to fight the good fight, to not give up, when they often haven't read anything the person's written? I think it's often because we don't want anyone to burst our bubble or tell us that our dream is just that, and will never be reality.

Look at the faces of all those people on American Idol who get told they'd be better off sticking with flipping burgers. Who would want to be responsible for making someone feel that way?

And yet it's often an inherent unwillingness to be honest with people, to tell them the harsh truth when necessary, that keeps people from correcting mistakes, from learning, from improving when possible and from switching gears when it makes sense.

The intent of this post isn't even to focus on aspiring authors and whether or not they should pursue their writing dream. I'm just going to give a few tips to avoid burning bridges.

#1. Write clean. If you're going to write a cover letter, write sentences. Spell the words properly. Be appropriate with the content. If you can't write a cover letter properly, chances are I won't be reading your story. No, it ISN'T my job to read whatever you send me, and read all of it, and see the genius through all your mistakes. It's YOUR job to demonstrate that you take your writing seriously enough to convince me I should publish your story, instead of another submission. Or, in our case, instead of dozens of other submissions.

#2. Did I mention that you should be appropriate in your communication, and with your content? Guys, stop sending your photos to my author email account. I DON'T CARE WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE. That will not change whether I like your story or not, or publish your story or not. And I'm married, so not only is what you look like NOT relevant, this is really inappropriate.

#3. Don't argue with an editor over a rejection. Everybody gets rejections. Telling the editor they're wrong and you'll show them is only going to ensure you're remembered for all the wrong reasons. Be polite, even if you're silently calling them a $@!%head.

For heaven's sake, people, the writing world is a small world, especially within genre fiction. Editors change publishers all the time. And we talk.

#4. Follow through on your contracts unless you have legal or legitimate grounds not to. If your story is accepted for publication, and an editor takes time to edit the story with you, and it's about to be published, and you've even provided a release selling the rights to the story for publication, do not pull the story from publication so that you can enter your edited-for-free story in some writing contest. Maybe some editor won't care that you wasted their time. I mean, there might be one in the known universe someone. But it's more likely that your name will go straight to the top of their shitlist. (And yes, Spinetingler has one. We have a manure file.)

(I'm not saying this applies when you haven't signed a release or been edited. If a publication has been sitting on your story for months with no word, you have the right to follow up on it, and even to withdraw it. Just understand reasonable timelines. It's not uncommon for work to sit for a year before publication. Don't email someone a month after you've submitted a story and flip out on them because you haven't heard anything. If your story was accepted but you haven't done a contract or edits or heard anything for ten months, you should definitely follow up with them.)

#5. If you sold your story and it was published, accept that fact. Say you sold your story to a magazine, anthology or ezine. You provided a release agreeing to terms. You received payment for your story.

YOU DON'T GET TO 'UNPUBLISH' IT AND GIVE IT AS AN EXCLUSIVE TO ANOTHER PUBLISHER. It's not an exclusive. It's been published. It's been read. YOU WERE PAID. Do I really have to explain this?

And why the hell aren't you celebrating your publication, and mentioning your publication credits?

#6. Even if something that was published is out of print, or off the internet now, it was still published. That means that if someone reviewed your work and wasn't favorable, and you subsequently badger the publisher to remove the story, that doesn't mean the reviewer will take their review down. It doesn't mean it's an unpublished story that you can submit as a new story to a publisher, either. And if you're such an idiot that you use publication online as a means of editing, suck it up. You put your mistakes out there for the world to see, and the only person in the world who's likely to think sunshine springs from your arse is your mother.

You can't ask people only to like you, and not expect an honest response from them. It doesn't work that way. You have the right to dislike a book or a movie or a short story or a play or a song or TV show. Other people have the same right.

People, this is why when you start to be published you learn to critique the work and not the person. If someone gets personal and dirty with you, being upset is understandable. If someone doesn't like your story, learn to deal with it. The world is a big place. There are people who don't like Harry Potter, either, and JK Rowling did just fine with her sales.

#6. Respect people's time. Wasting the time of editors or agents is never a good idea. Time is money. Every person out there has obligations. Don't impose on people and assume they have all the time in the world to give to you. Don't waste people's time. This connects to #4 and #5.

#7. Follow the submission guidelines.

The next person who emails me to tell me their story isn't formatted properly, who submitted it without formatting it according to our guidelines because they thought they were such hot $!@& that the guidelines didn't apply to them, because they're special, will have their emailed author photo that was sent to my personal email printed and tacked dead center in our dart board.

#8. Make the most of every opportunity. Every person you're in contact with is a potential contact. Every encounter with them contributes to your reputation. If you have a bad reputation, you'll miss out on some opportunities. It's even possible you'll miss out on a lot of opportunities.

#9. Be careful about publicly criticizing publications. Don't look down your nose at any legitimate publication venue. I remember when people told me being published online wasn't really being published. Then, I was told Spinetingler wasn't a real publication. Spinetingler is MWA-approved and what we publish can be submitted for the Edgars. Not really published my ass. And we pay.

I'm sure there's a lot more I could say, but there comes a point where people stop processing it. However, under all of these tips, there's a fundamental principle at work, and if it's the foundation of your behavior as a writer, you'll be fine. Be professional. Treat your writing professionally, and treat all your communications professionally.

On a personal note, I've realized I can eventually overlook or forgive most things, especially if a mistake is made by a new writer who's still learning the ropes. However, there's one thing that's unforgivable, and it ties to this final tip:

#10. Be willing to learn. Especially when you're starting out, at least try pretending to be humble. If you respond as though you know it all, it's a sure sign you don't. The smartest people in this business take advice, process it, and then decide if it's good or bad. The dumbest ignore everything because they already know it all.

And I'll tell you right out that if you aren't willing to learn, there isn't a thing I can do to help you.

In the end, every writer sinks or swims based on what they put on the page. There's no amount of good advice in the world that will help you if you won't listen to it.

There might be some who read this and think I'm a real bitch. I'm mean.

This is my personal time. This is when I could be writing my own work, or playing pool with my husband or walking the dog. I've chosen to take the time today to give some blunt, practical advice, so that the people who really do want to succeed and are willing to learn will hopefully avoid making a few mistakes along the way.

If all you come away with after reading this is that taking my personal time to provide some common sense suggestions for aspiring authors makes you think I'm mean, well, there probably isn't anything you ever need to hear from me anyway.


Dana King said...

I get the opening here. As a recovering musician, I am sometimes asked by friends what they should say to their children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews who want to go into music. I have a standard answer: try to talk them out of it. If you're successful, you did them a favor, as they had no chance if they could be so easily deterred. if you can't talk them out of it, hope for the best. They may have a shot, so long as their ambitions are realistic.

Thomas Pluck said...

Writers: act like a pro and you'll be treated like a pro.

Great advice. I wish all publishers were as professional as the Spinetingler crew is. I've only edited one anthology, and the folks who do it monthly, quarterly? They deserve your respect. It's not an easy job, and most are doing it after their real jobs.

Of course, respectful writers should be respected in turn. But the best way to get respected is to behave accordingly.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Dana, that's awesome advice. Great point.

Thomas, you're right. And there's definitely something to the idea that sometimes, people get so frustrated, they pass that on to the next people in line. I (fortunately!) still deal with some aspiring authors who remind me that having faith in people isn't always a bad thing, and that there are good people out there ready to soak up all the advice like a sponge. They keep you going.

Plus, I know how much I benefit from guidance. I figure when you're ready to stop learning, your ready to die, and in publishing, so much is changing, nobody's got it all figured out.

Nigel Bird said...

Always useful to be reminded of such things. Thanks.

Young said...

Always useful to be reminded of such things. Thanks.