Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Anger

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*

17 comments:

MataPam said...

". . .The Authors' eyes gleamed red in the torch light as they closed in on the terrified publishers . . . "

Anonymous said...

I only have experience in the short story field, but even now, there's one respected semi-pro publication to whom I will never submit again. I get angry everytime I think about it. The rejection called my submission "clumsy, preachy, cliched high-school revenge fantasy."

Where does the editor get off calling a cleanly-formatted and typed, guidelines-following, grammarly-correct submission from someone who has two pro credits already under their belt? Not that the pro credits mean a thing to the merits of this story except to say that I do know how to put a sentence or two together and do understand the structure of a short story.

In fact, who does he think he is to respond to anyone's submission that way? Clearly, IMO someone who is riding high on a power trip and a mean person at that. Even if the editor thought that, clearly it could've been phrased better. I've been told since then by other writers that these editors are rude, yet they continue to succeed in the field. Why would writers do this to themselves? I have often reached "rejection burn-out" only to rally weeks later.

That rejection might be enough to ruin a lesser-armored writer's ego. But not me. I continue to submit to other publications because most of them are fine to work with. I can handle rejection (even though I'm in the midst of a "rejection burn-out" phase, I know the rally is coming), but there's no need to put up with crap from editors, short story editors anyway since I don't personally know much about novel editors. I can see if a novel editor is the link to your bread and butter that you would put up with more.

But, I took the long way around to say that I agree. Editors and publishers owe their writers human decency and respect, especially if those writers are making the effort to turn in manuscripts that make it easier for them to do their jobs. We're not all great writers, but we may be one day.

Laurel Hamilton wrote in one of her short story collections that editors don't get second chances with her. One did her wrong as she was coming up, and to this day, she won't allow them to publish her. I might not ever be a Laurel Hamilton, but the next writer might be.

As a publisher/editor, why spit in your own soup?

Linda

Anonymous said...

Whoops, sorry Laurell, missed the third "l" in the above post.

Linda

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Pam,

Now, now, we're not squirrels!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Linda,

This is what I mean by needlessly getting writers riled up. If the publisher thought the story was that bad, then surely a standard rejection would suffice. If he thought that it showed promise and wanted to give a hand up, surely he could have said "I found that the story holds too much to moral verities and cliches, and perhaps you should consider another age group for characters." BUT honestly, if there was THAT MUCH he/she saw wrong with it but some promise it would be more professional to simply say, "Try us again with your next one" at bottom of standard rejection. Surely this submission pushed his/her buttons? I mean, honestly, this happens to everyone. BUT they don't behave as though they were in an OFFICE and that's the issue.
Short story editors are often the worst, though the worst of the worst rejections I ever got on those was from a semi-pro mag that called me "a xenophobic, narrow minded pain in the ass" for a story set in Portugal. My crime? My character was shocked by pastries kept atop a counter, not refrigerated, which was in fact normal for Portugal at the time and which DOES shock most Americans on first contact with it. (Rolls eyes.) This was when I found out that telling the truth was being narrow minded and also that I somehow managed to be xenophobic against my country of origin. Oh, yeah, and also that that editor was a narrow minded pain in the behind and had zero impulse control.

Synova said...

Wow, Linda. You almost should frame that one.

Or something.

When I hung out with romance writers it seemed that quite a few didn't want a professional rejection, they wanted someone to gush over them a bit and let them down easy. Form letters were supposedly outright insulting, as if the editor didn't care.

Rejections are painful, but I think that I'd rather get a form letter with a check in a box that said, "Thank you for submitting to our magazine. Your story does not meet our needs at this time."

Sure, it doesn't mean anything at all beyond "no" but I don't really see the point of an editor having to give critical feedback until and unless the author is someone they highly desire to "send us your next story."

And, I did notice that you didn't name names.

I wonder if naming names wouldn't improve things. (In general terms, not specifically you, Linda.) If nothing else it would allow for someone with a good experience to say "Really? He must have been in a bad mood, I wouldn't take it personally."

I'm all for not burning bridges and I have an aversion to gossip, which can get bad. But if agents and editors and publishers talk about authors and new writers as "hard to work with" it seems fair.

Or perhaps a "semi" pro figures they only need to be "semi" professional?

And honestly... "high school revenge fantasy" sounds like a best seller to me. :-)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Synova,

Name and shame is not an option at this point. Writers are still relatively powerless, but this is the sort of change I SAID might come about in another year or two.

And the problem is that not only do authors behave as though their work is a school assignment, editors and agents tend to imagine they're teachers.

Is there a point to critique? Of course there is. I've talked about it ad nauseum.

But the person who doesn't want to buy your stuff and is revolted by it is the last person from whom you want to take critique.

Tomorrow's post over at according to Hoyt will be about writers groups and when you should take critique seriously and when you shouldn't. For instance, our writers' group started out with a member who so consistently said "to begin with this didn't work for me" that it became a comedy. We just didn't listen to anything he had to say.

Louise Curtis said...

I've only had one piece of bizarre feedback (and it was clear that the person I was pitching to was trying her best - she just hadn't read any fantasy in the last decade), and every single editor/agent/publisher I've ever had contact with took pains to be polite and helpful.

Usually they don't dare give feedback until they know I won't bite. Personally, I've met plenty of unstable authors, so I don't blame them for sending form rejections rather than risking vitriol.

My only beef with publisher types is when they take longer than six months to reply. Right now three of Australia's big five are at 24 months, 7 months, and 7 months with one of my books each (the latter two have only opening chapters).

I recently emailed all three with a gentle reminder. Only one has replied.

That's just rude.

Louise Curtis

Chris McMahon said...

I sometimes think the publishing world preys on 'special needs' people. Writers will keep writing no matter what - will take ten kinds of crap and come back like a dog for another kick in the head. Maybe we need disability pensions?

Anyone else would have given it away to flip pancakes or dig ditches or anything else that pays more than - nothing?

Love that comment ' with the ink hardly dry on their fine arts diploma'. God. So true. Yet the only true qualification is to be opinionated and 'certain' to an absurd level - two traits I have always associated with people who lack intelligence. Hmmn. Go figure?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Louise,

I was about to say "You've been lucky" but then I remembered all my contacts with Australian magazine publishers I've been extremely well treated and they're very professional, so maybe it's nation-related.
I do NOT object to standard rejections. Yeah, at my stage they're a crushing blow "What the... standard?" but they're much better than "we hate you, drop dead, we're going to come and shoot your dog." rejections

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

Yeah, part of the issue is that they know we'll keep coming. I'll also say that when you have to deal with SOME authors out there -- no, seriously. I edited a small press mag once. It BARELY paid. People would find our number and call us, and yell at us BEFORE THE STORY ARRIVED because we hadn't bought -- you go a little unhinged. But again, when they're dealing with professional authors, they should be a little more cautious...

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Sarah. I'd have to say my experience with editors in Aus has been 99.5% good. Doesn't mean I have to be happy when they don't buy!

But it's always those negative ones that stay with you.

Stephen Simmons said...

I have to apologize for what I'm about to say ... But posts like this keep reminding me how incredibly lucky I've been thus far (knocking on wood, and hoping the Dryad is in a good mood ...).

The only negative experience I've had up to this point was that offensive contract you advised me on last year. The rejections I've gotten have all been uniformly pleasant in tone, and more than half have been personalized in at least some small way.

(Although I do feel a little apprehensive about killing publications ... I published flash through a site that is now closed, I had a story in the slush-pile at Realms of Fantasy when it folded ...)

Chris L said...

Like Linda, I only have experience in short form, but they're usually okay about it. I haven't had any 'Hey loser, drop dead' feedback (yet).

But the problem I see is that as a beginner writer I got so little feedback that I took every little comment to heart. A few one liners really threw me off my game early on.

I had some feedback from a recent story (rejection), read by three different editors, see below:

1. Interesting story, nice use of landscape. To my eye there are some moments that could be tightened up and I think it would be stronger if some things were directly said rather than alluded to.

2. this is well written, but the story is surprisingly unmoving, and quite flat. Quite dull.

3. well-written. Beginning is a bit slow

So one helpful suggestion, one pretty useless comment, and one criticism of pace. On balance I'd say more helpful than a kick in the teeth...But goes to show that even editors for the same mag look at different angles.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Stephen,

More than half of my rejections are personal and nice. The weird thing is that the BAD ones come from supposedly "good" editors.

A gay friend has explained this by telling me that most authors are bottoms. They want to be beat and humiliated and if you're stern with them they think you know what you're talking about.

Um... I must be atypical.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris L,

I've had SOME very useful half-exasperated comments that probably crossed the professional line but were clearly kindly meant. My two favorites were "Oh, for gods' sake, learn to have your protagonists protag. You're gold otherwise." (Up till then, my protagonists tended to be Watson to some Holmes who actually did stuff. I changed that and the magazine -- Weird Tales -- has bought every story I sent them since.) The other was from an agent on my first novel "You know, you can ONLY have coincidences if they go AGAINST your character, not to help him, right?" I know this is not strictly ture, but it greatly helps with plotting.
The rejections I object to are the ones that could be summarized as "die, die, die, die, die."

Dave Freer said...

There is a similiarity to the situation in publishing to that in the various dictatorships of the M.E. The problem with living in a situation where no-one dares tell Mummar Ghaddafi etc he was acting like total ponce, and was being mind-boggling stupid when he did xyz. And humans have an amazing capacity for self-deception, and at least some of us actually like acting like a total ponce. If no one dares say 'no' you very soon come to the happy-self-delusion that you're the greatest and you're always right and everyone LOVES your antics. And then the dam is finally too full and cracks. Typically the Dictator simply continues his denial "But MY people LOVE me! These people are drugged. They're foreigners!" At best they open a sluice half a turn, but usually they just turn up the repression. And sometimes a la Iran, they succeed. But if they don't they find every single man - often most voiciferously led by their old yes-men turn viciously on them.

I think you have a very similar situation in publishing. I doubt very much if there is one editor sitting on a panel at a con who realises that a good half of the writers in the audience would cheerfully tar and feather them. And that even their 'friends' among the writers - the ones who owe their very existence to said editor, are going to leap to their defence... until the stream runs a little faster and then they'll mostly spit in their eyes.

The problem IS fixable - but just who is going to say - for example -to the CEO of Harper Collins - "open the sluice gates full. Your dam will have 1/3 of the water in it. But you'll have a dam." and actually get listened to?