Dave Freer wrote about anger almost a year ago. Mostly he wrote about the incredibly self-destructive anger that comes with being a writer.
I can’t improve on what he said particularly the part about how every crash is assume to be driver’s error even if the wheels came off the publishing effort before the driver took the wheel.
A few years before Dave wrote that, I stumbled on a book on burnout, because I hit a wall of sorts, where I couldn’t motivate myself to write, even when I wanted to write. (This wall is endemic. It comes, I fight against it. It comes again.)
The book on burnout was, of course, not directed at writers. It was actually a book on escaping the situation that caused the burnout. And the first thing it identified was the situation that almost inevitably causes the worst burnout – what they called the perfect storm.
Apparently people are able or at least willing to withstand working their hearts out at things where the outcome can’t be under their control (i.e. no matter how excellent they are or how hard they work, they can’t guarantee the outcome will be good.) They can survive this situation given, ideally, two things – recognition (pats on the back, prestige, the sense that what they’re doing is special and needed) and very good pay. The lack of control over their position will still tire them, and they’ll need vacations and cosseting. Now, if you remove just one of those compensations – the high pay or the recognition – you’re going to make it more likely that burnout will happen. If you remove both the compensations, so you have someone with no control over the outcome of their work, no high compensation and no recognition you’ve just created a mid list author... er... I mean the perfect storm for burnout.
Or perhaps “the reason my dentist thinks I should wear a mouth guard at night because of tooth-grinding.”
(Their advice, btw, was to run away from such a situation at all costs because it will kill you in a short time. Of course, for writers, at least up till now, the escape hatches are few.)
I happened to re-read Dave’s post last week, while looking for something on MGC and this brought to mind the book on burnout (remind me I need to find my mouth guard) which in turn came to mind again when I read a post by a friendly colleague about her extreme depression, brought about by... lack of control of the outcome, lack of recognition and lack of money. This post touched me greatly because there but for the grace of Baen go I. I was saved from being exactly where she is, by Jim and Toni giving me my own conference in the Baen bar oh... six? Years ago. Which in turn resulted in my hearing directly from Baen fans, so that even if the establishment doesn’t know my name, I do get people asking what happens next, and talking about my characters like real people, and that recognition keeps me going, even through all the worry about money and book distribution and my wretched attempts at publicity.
And then yesterday, while writing on rejections, it occurred to me that there is something there that links in with both Dave’s post and this colleague’s plea for help and that is – they treat us like children or fools.
Now, I mentioned this to a friend who said she knew many stores that treated their employees like that. Yeah, I’m sure she does. I know some computer shops that do the same. But it’s not an industry wide syndrome. Exploited employees can usually walk down the street and get something new. (Well, maybe not in the present economy.) In writing – though there are quite a few exceptions – the norm seems to be for anyone in an editorial position to treat the writer like dirt beneath their chariot wheels.
Crude, rude and overbearing rejections are not rare. Making generalizations about writers being like children are not rare. In fact, anywhere that industry professionals gather, writers will often be treated like idiot children.
My friend suggested perhaps this is because – though the number of writers who fit the stereotype is very small – there is a stereotype that writers are unstable.
I don’t think so. Look, the stereotype for postal workers IS that they’re unstable. Hence the “going postal” and I don’t see a supervisor treating a carrier this way – say, taking a professional of twenty years and telling him “you don’t know how to distribute mail. You can’t drive that car properly” or anything like that. Why not? Because they are afraid the postal worker will go berserk.
On the contrary, I think the general rudeness and unprofessional belittling of writers comes from the fact that until recently, to quote my grandmother’s expression for these situations, the publishing side of the equation had both the knife and the cheese. If you were so much as rude to them, or they just didn’t like you, you could be shut out of publishing. It didn’t even take any formal blacklisting. I personally observed one of these cases up close and personal (no, not me) and despite excellent sales all it took was putting word about that the writer is “hard to work with.” (Which isn’t even true.)
Even beyond that, if they didn’t actively like you/your book and get very involved in it, your distribution would suck, and failing all that if, by a miracle, you still sold, they were in control of your statements and you couldn’t see your numbers, so they could p*ss on your neck and tell you it was raining.
So you had to approach them cap in hand, and bow and tug on your forelock. You had to stay in their good graces to keep working, and your entire livelihood was dependent on this handful of interconnected (with some exceptions, like Baen) people.
Did this breed contempt? Good Lord, yes. I mean, seriously, it doesn’t surprise me that people with the ink barely dry on their fine arts diploma would presume to tell professionals how to do their job. What surprises me, under the circumstances, is that they didn’t feed us to literal lions for their amusement. (We won’t mention the metaphorical lions.)
What is the point of this? Other than venting my anger?
Well, writers are starting to acquire other channels. Not as viable as mainstream publishing yet, I’ll give you that. For all but a lucky few, it won’t support us... yet.
But things are changing very fast. And long before it is viable for a writer to make a living from self publishing, it will be possible for enough exasperated writers to walk away or die trying. (And no, I’m not ready to yet. Read about where I got a conference from Jim and Toni. And also, things seem to be finally starting to sell. And also, at this point I'm practically down to editors I enjoy working with. But there are a lot of people where I was a few years ago.) And for enough competing offerings to be available to take money from the publisher’s bottom line.
In other words – long before we can live without them, publishers will find they can’t live without us.
And then they’ll run up against that anger Dave mentioned.
I’ve long ago preached about writers growing up. Don’t bitch at an editor. Don’t tell them they’re stupid because they rejected you. (I’ve been on the other side of that desk. Most people who do that are not people I want to work with.) If an editor offers politely expressed non-ludicrous comments, consider them before you dismiss them. (But don’t rewrite unless they’re paying you or at least agreeing to read it again. As for ludicrous, if I get one more rejection critiquing a three page synopsis as though it were the whole book... I’m going to find my mouth guard.) Accept in your heart that no matter how good you are, some books are simply not what the editor (or sometimes anyone) is looking for. Be willing to move on to the next book.
Now, hark, for I’m the voice that cries in the desert, and who doesn’t expect to be heard until ... a year or two from now, when the desertion of the midlisters (and lower) starts hurting. And even then, it might take a while.
But perhaps it’s time for editors (and some agents) to consider (this just from things that happened to me I’ve heard much worse, and I’m sure our readers have too):
- Not telling the writer that you have read better things from your three year old son;
- not telling the writer that you disapprove of his/her moral stance and he/she must be “depraved”;
-not spending hours thinking of belittling ways to describe the writers’ work (the one that stuck in my mind was ‘flipping voices like a cook flipping pancakes in a cheap greasy spoon’ (12 years ago, from an agent for... Darkship Thieves.);
-not sending a rejection saying “your novel was terrible” when the only thing the author ever sent you was a request for guidelines (and the author hadn’t published yet, so chances of your having seen one of her novels are small to none.)
Editors should instead – particularly when they’re dealing with authors who have published more than one or two books – treat them as professionals treat other professionals. Oh, sure if there’s a chance you’ll buy the book if they fix a detail or two, point out what they got wrong. If they’ve got some egregious error of science of history (or grammar, like the lady who had a character with a “copulant face” in a story I read for a slush pile long ago. I was forced to point out “I think you mean corpulent, and that’s still wrong.) you can mention it politely.
Of course, if the author doesn’t behave like a professional, THEN you may take your gloves off, but don’t preemptively assume you’re dealing with the mentally unstable. It takes a degree of fortitude and work to produce readable work. I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but truly, anyone off the street CAN’T do it.
See, now you might still have the knife, but the writers have the cheese. You’re going to have to behave as if they matter, because they do. And you won’t survive without them.
*crossposted at According To Hoyt*