Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The A’tist and the Businessman

Periodically people – on facebook, via email, through my site – try to get me to read their manuscripts. Unless they are friends or I know that what they really want is an honest critique, I do not give it. This is difficult, because some of these people are quite, quite, quite persistent and keep coming back with “but I’m sure you’ll love it if you just read it.”

I’m not saying that they’re wrong. For all I know, most of them or a significant portion of them are right and their manuscripts would absolutely knock my socks off, set my world afire or rock my aesthetic perceptions.

I’ve long ago learned not to judge how good someone’s work will be by whether or not they’re published. Being published involves all sorts of other qualities/events than being a very good writer. For example, one of my best friends was writing much better than I was – or probably ever will – when she was completely unpublished and is still doing so now, when she’s only published short stories and I’ve published several novels. Her novels keep getting rejected, though. Another of my best friends writes so much like me that my own husband can’t tell our work apart. She’s published almost nothing compared to me.

So these strangers who absolutely want me to read their novel might be amazing writers, much better than what I can buy off the shelf. I’m still not going to read their work, because it wouldn’t do either of us any good. Note my examples above. These are people I like very much and on whom I depend as though they were family. They are still largely unpublished. Why? Because writers don’t have that kind of power. We can’t do the editor’s job for them. It’s not OUR job. We can at most – if we love something – recommend it to an editor/publisher/agent. I’ve now recommended my two friends a couple of times. They’ve been rejected. Mind you, they got the up close and personal rejection which means my view of their work is correct – they’re very good and publishable. But something about the work, something about the timing, something about the editor’s/agent’s taste keeps them from breaking in.

It might seem to you getting an author’s recommend, or a personal introduction gets you closer to the goal, at least, let me disabuse you of that notion. I have a lot of friends, many more – much, much more – successful than I am. Their attempts to give me a hand up have been about as successful as my attempts to get my friends published. Oh, it happens, once in a blue moon, that an author friend – and almost always these are close friends – will recommend you to his/her editor/agent/publisher and you’ll get a contract. However, just on percentage, it’s easier for you to go through the normal channels of submission. Discovery sounds glamorous, but it’s harder than normal acceptance.

Of course, some more creative souls do stranger things, like post samples of their work on my blog comments, my facebook wall or – and this is very creative indeed – send it to my agent/editor with a note that I recommended it.

The first two are at best annoyances. Look, yeah, I have a few editors/agents who, sporadically, read my postings. They do this because we’re friends outside of “work” and like to joke or tease me about stuff I post. They do not do this to find “the next best thing.” To be blunt, most of them get quite enough submissions to read during their normal work time. In fact, reading submissions is the chore that never ends. They get submissions through the normal channels, they get work from writers they met at cons and social occasions, and they get submissions from people (not always writers) who recommend friends and co-workers. And this is work for them. No matter how much they love reading, no matter how much they tell you, in interviews, that they love “discovering” new work, when they read submissions it’s in a different frame of mind than when blogging or reading blogs/facebook/twitter. TRUST me on this. I’ve edited in the past. When I read with an eye to what might be publishable/needed, it’s not the same as reading say Austen fandom, which I often do read.

I’m not saying they might not look at your work. I’m saying that after catching on it’s a “sneaky submission” slipped into their leisure time, they’re likely to be mad at you and, if I don’t take steps to delete it or dissociate myself from it, at me for ambushing them with work during their fun. Ambushing them in that way is as impolite as ambushing a doctor at a party and asking for a diagnosis. I don’t have numbers, but I’d bet you a lot of money that you stand a better chance of being ambushed by a meteor in a back alley than you have of selling a book this way.

In fact, some writers will block you/defriend you/shut you out for this sort of thing. I won’t, because I can understand where you’re coming from. (More on that later, as well.)

The third method – to send something to my editor or agent and telling them I recommended it when I didn’t – will get you defriended/blocked/shut out if I ever find out it happened, because frankly it could potentially affect my professional relationship. POTENTIALLY – as in, unlikely, but it could happen. The reason it’s unlikely to damage my professional credit is the same reason why this fraudulent action manages to be both dishonest and stupid.

The person who comes up with this brilliant idea doesn’t realize that there have been several people to try it before him/her and that therefore there are procedures in place to circumvent it. For instance, unless I send my agent or editor a letter asking “Would you like to see my friend’s...” and the editor or agent answers with “sure” any over the transom submission saying “Sarah A. Hoyt loves this” will be seen as a fraud. MOST of the time (exceptions made for writers’ group members I HAVE introduced to the editor and even those just in short stories, frankly) such letters from me to editor and answers are followed by MY sending the manuscript I’m recommending to the editor/agent, with a copy to the author, with whom future correspondence will take place.

What all three of these methods will do, in any case, is cause untold damage to YOUR reputation and your chances of publication – if they’re noticed. You should pray they aren’t. This is because the one thing the publishers fear is “the crazy”. “The crazy” might have been a perfectly normal person driven insane by the process of getting published and their fundamental misunderstanding of that process. Or they might be – and very often are – people who think of themselves as artists and tortured souls: people whose work doesn’t depend on excellent craft and practice, but on the bolt of lightening of inspiration or the touch of a god of some description. These people just KNOW they’re good. (A surprising number of them have ‘something’ – usually smothered under layers and layers of twitdom and lack of craft.)

For the Touched By The Gods Artist it’s hard to endure the fact that they have to go through the same selection process as common mugs. This is reinforced – for practically everyone – by

a) the fact our society’s method of educating the young gives everyone, even adults this bizarre idea everything is a class and has an exam/grade. So when your work is good enough and you’re still not getting bought it’s an “injustice”.

b) Stories of strange methods of discovering writers circulated around and highly publicized. I’ve heard these stories the same as everyone else has and I can tell you nine times out of then when you dig into them you find that they just ain’t so. There’s always something that’s not told, like that the new, amazing star happens to be the best friend of the editor’s boyfriend/girlfriend and that’s why their blog post got read. Or they went to school with the agent or the agent’s best friend. Or...

The stories of sudden discovery are just that – stories, which make for d*mn good publicity. But again, you stand a better chance of being snatched up by aliens to be their king.

The Artist doesn’t know this, or if he does, he thinks he deserves that almost-impossible chance. And that means, he tries creative methods. The other things that lie in his path should he not wise up are what will get him blacklisted at the first sign of “artistic temperament” – a lot of these tortured souls will make threats to published writers/agents/editors; they will act unhinged/aggressive at cons; they will at best be nuisances and at worst dangerous.

Worse yet, even if they don’t do any of those things, and manage to get published, they’re unlikely to be able to bear up under the slings and arrows of publishing fortunes. And if you want to know what I mean by that, let me just say I thought I was uniquely unlucky until – while siting with about twenty other writers, some of them bestsellers – we started comparing horror stories. And then I realized I’d practically been treated with kid gloves by lady luck.

As into every life a little rain must fall, into every writing career – even of those who will end up being bestsellers – a little sh*t happens must fall. And the sh*t includes but is not limited to: horrible covers, dropped publicity campaigns, completely failed early books, disaster doom and lack of sales. The people who go on to be bestsellers end up shouldering these issues, and forging ahead – not matter how much more difficult the road has become.

This is why the best and fastest way to get published is to play by the rules. This shows an even temperament, understanding of the field, and taking a realistic attitude towards the BUSINESS of publishing. It means you have a better chance of persevering, working hard and not causing trouble – all excellent qualities in a contractor, which is what the publisher/editor is looking for.

Nowadays, I agree the process of submission is a mess. I’m not going to advise you on that beyond the barest level: find editors/agents who take slush submissions, or find an agent and leave the process to them. Or if you’re absolutely sure you’re not a twit but a real writer, publish your own work, publicize heaven out of it and sell enough to then submit to a real house. All of these methods have been proven to work, as has climbing the ranks from small press to major publisher.

Things that will help your path will be attending cons and both making personal acquaintances in publishing (always showing yourself polite and professional, of course), reading in the field to know what people are looking for/like, and – needless to say – work at perfecting your craft, because the great idea must be married to great execution to work.

And then... keep at it. In my experience, a good publishing career depends on – preparation, persistence and professionalism. Luck helps, but it’s neither indispensable nor all important. And notice that the “p” of potential or the “g” of genius are not mentioned. Most bestsellers or even mega bestsellers didn’t make it on either but on sheer slogging and persistence.

Questions? Protests? Worries? Let me know and I’ll answer as I can.


David Barron said...

My rule is to let nobody but my small circle of alpha (and sometimes the slightly larger circle of beta) readers see my work who isn't potentially in a position to pay for it. Any alpha and beta relationship must be reciprocal, or what's the point?

There's a difference between creative methods of submission and "creatively" being a jackass. Self-publishing a novel and then being picked up? Creative. Falsely claiming a recommendation? Jackass.

Ori Pomerantz said...

a lot of these tortured souls will make threats to published writers/agents/editors

If you don't retract the claim that I'm a tortured soul I'm going to use my amazing forces of telekinesis to throw an anvil over your head. An anvil full of unobtanium, with neutronium lining to make it even heavier.


Ben Godby said...

Playing by the rules hasn't worked for me yet, but I keep at it. It's easy to get discouraged by rejections, but once you understand they don't mean much, they're a lot easier to take; and you can definitely do a lot of damage to yourself by acting the fool. Like David, I see no reason to give my fiction away for free - even if it's only a snippet lodged in a blog comment section.

And, as for people conning your agent with your name, I suppose this is one of those instances where possessing a wand of fireball would be really useful.

... and maybe a rod of teleport, for the sake of convenience.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Oh, Sarah.

You should be called 'Tell-it-like-it-is-Sarah'.

Chris L said...

As a 20yo, I had a go at writing a novel. I thought it was quite brilliant of course, and that any publisher would be a fool not to accept it.

I never finished it though, and when I look at it now I can see it was truly awful and I'm glad I didn't send it to anyone. I feel sorry for editors who have to read that kind of drivel regularly.

It seems to me that most writers need to mature a little to produce their best work, and perhaps to work out where they fit in the scheme of things.

I gave up for about 10 years and now I'm wirting again. But with a little experience I can see I'm still not anywhere near as good as I want to be. I'm sure in another 10 years I'll look back at what I'm writing now and laugh--

--real hard.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Chris, I wrote 8 or 9 books in my early twenties.

When I came back to writing it was with the matgurity of 10 years more life experience.

You know that post you did on Maps for fantgasy worlds for the ROR blog?

Someone emailed me to say it was their favourite of all the ROR posts.

Thought you'd like know.

MataPam said...

But, but, Sarah! Everyone says I'm Touched in the Head. Isn't that the same thing as brilliant?


Chris L said...

Wow, Thanks Rowena,

That's made my day.

Kate said...

I have several trusted alpha readers - you know who you are - and I like to drop snippets around because the reaction I get tells me how people handle the piece 'cold'. Since I've yet to find that blasted box people keep telling me to think outside of, that's about the only way I'm going to know if I've gone too far into Kate-weird.

Unfortunately, it seems readers have a higher tolerance for weird than editors...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


If a writer friend who is much better than I offers to read something, I let him/her and take the opinions seriously. OTOH I don't ask total strangers to read me on FB.

And you're correct on the Jackwagon thing.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


You're not a tortured soul, you're a barfly. :)

Actually people's occasional striking of oh, so tortured poses drives me batty. Mostly I'm tortured when I CAN'T write.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Rod of Teleport... I like that.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I'm the mother of teens. Life is too short...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris L,

And then there's the other way around. After say twenty years, you read stuff you wrote and yeah, you see EVERY glaring mistake, but you also realize there's an energy there you might have lost. And then you... recapture it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I wrote eight books before I ever published anything... fortunately most of them are lost.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


In your case, yes. Though you know it would not go amiss to put a bit more work and worldbuilding into it, making your worlds three dimmensional.

Yes, I know it's work, but it could take good to brilliant.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I don't think so. I think the editors underestimate the market tolerance for weird, is all. OTOH does the fish know of water? Because I think I'm like that for weird....