Thursday, March 22, 2007

Thankless

If you want to be a carpenter you can do an apprenticeship. Teacher? University degree and bachelor of education plus practical experience. Social worker? Again, degrees. Firefighter? Intensive training that involves practical and written testing.

For the majority of careers out there it’s possible to be trained. It’s possible to watch professionals at work, have them guide you, take a program that will cover all the skill sets you need.

So what, exactly, do you do if you want to be an author? There is no degree program. Hell, there isn’t even Nashville. You can’t get invited to the studio for drafting sessions and see an author writing, or in the process of pitching to an agent, or an agent to an editor. Much of the time authors seem to learn by failure. You learn how to assess the rejection letters. Or you pay for a professional critique. You go to writing workshops, try to meet people in the industry.

I’ve seen the approach. I’ve been on both sides of it. I’ve forced myself to go up to someone and ask them about something they’ve said on a panel. I’ve watched other people as they’ve seen someone approaching them, seen their shoulders tense, the smile slip from their lips as they wait to hear what they’ll be asked this time.

Once I went through it myself I started to understand. You just never know what people will ask you, people you don’t even know. Because I understand both sides of the equation I’m painfully aware that a lot of writers and even some authors have no idea what they ask of reviewers/editors that might be shockingly inappropriate. And when you’re asked in person it’s a thousand times worse because you have to find diplomatic tact and put it to a person face to face.

And some of these people just don’t get it. An example I’ll use out of the publishing world: Back to Nashville. Everywhere the successful performers go songwriters will try to pass them recordings of their work to get them to listen to their stuff. They can’t do it. Legally, there’s a process. And if they take work from someone and end up recording a song the artist contends is similar – even if the song is written by someone else – there can be lawsuits.

You also have to remember that the ‘successful’ people are being asked constantly for introductions to agents, producers from record labels, etc. Our industry, like theirs, involves connections. There are two roads you can go: The standard route or referrals from people with connections. And the overwhelming majority of people get where they’re going the standard route.

And really, it’s much better. It means you know you earned your spot. You weren’t just pay-off as a favour to someone.

Still, it’s not easy sometimes and the temptation to go for shortcuts is a reality for a lot of aspiring authors. I remember trying to navigate the publishing world at first. It was confusing and frustrating. It was clear some opportunities were only open through connections – you’d check out an agent’s site, who said they only considered referrals from existing clients. And they wouldn’t list all their clients. But this meant you had to know one of their authors.

And so it begins, anxious aspiring authors start approaching authors at signings, festivals, conventions, hoping they can build that bridge and get a referral. Thus begins the nightmare of the author.

When we started Spinetingler we decided we were going to try to make it as writer friendly as possible. We allowed simultaneous submissions, because we didn’t want people having work tied up for months. Of course, someone took advantage of that in a way that almost got us into legal hot water and we stopped allowing them. These days, our submission volume is such that if I find out anyone has done it they go on my banned list. Well, it’s a list of one at the moment, and hopefully never gets any longer. The reason for that name on the list leads into how we used to handle rejection letters: We used to offer some general critique of the story and identify where the readers had trouble with it and why it wasn’t being accepted. I never tried to be cruel to people. Lord knows I’ve had a few nasty rejections for short stories and I never find sending out a rejection letter to be an enjoyable experience. I won’t say it hurts me as much as the writer, but I do think about their disappointment and try to be as positive as possible.

One Sunday morning, quite a long time ago, I sent out some rejection letters. One person came back within an hour blasting me for the comments on their story.

Then, they dropped in a lovely line, about the fact that the story was going to be published elsewhere anyway.

I wrote back and pointed out that our submission guidelines did not allow for simultaneous submissions and we would have appreciated the story being withdrawn when they had it accepted elsewhere.

This is when they said that they only submitted it after I rejected it and already had an acceptance. Wonder if his nose grew. Within an hour of rejection? Considering the problems with that story and the clear fact from the initial response that the writer thought it was perfect? Yeah, right.

But after a number of variations on this shade of response we stopped offering any specific comment on why the story was rejected. Sad, because if people don’t give pointers and let writers know where the story needs work, it’s harder for the to improve. And the whole fucking point was to be helpful.

My instincts have always been to be helpful. If someone asks for an opinion or if I know about something (ie how to write a synopsis) they’re stuck on and they ask for help I see no reason at all to just outright refuse. I mean, it’s one thing if you’re sick or swamped with work or something, but to just make a deliberate decision not to be helpful if I can be? That’s never jived with me.

I implement my policy across the board, even subconsciously. Up to a certain point in the day I try to respond to every person who comments – be they completely anonymous, an author, a writer, a friend, a complete stranger. This isn’t a club where only certain people are allowed. Well, no assholes. But otherwise the doors are open.

The reality is, for the majority of us, spread to the four corners of the globe, the way we network and learn is through the internet community. Forums, blogs, listservs. This is how we form connections now, and so it’s impossible for me to talk about supporting new writers without talking about the internet aspect of it.

I’ve found varying levels of willingness to deal with newcomers in the writing community, from open acceptance to being completely snubbed. Quite possibly the rudest experience of my life happened at Bouchercon. It wasn’t an author or anyone employed in the industry either. It was an aspiring author, and the only reason I say this is to make the point that this is not just about authors and how they treat newcomers. And to say that the way some newcomers/aspiring authors behave certainly justifies some reluctance on the part of those who’ve been around for a while. There is a difference between confidence and arrogance. Nobody likes a self-important, conceited newcomer who’s been on the scene five minutes and puffs themselves up like they know-it-all.

I guess I know for myself that when people have questions about doing research and such and I have information that can help them I just want to point them in the right direction. But I’ve recently come to a point where everywhere I go online if I even get to the point that I feel inclined to respond to a blog post or forum remark and start typing, about 50% of the time I delete the comment. I did that on the weekend at Stuart MacBride’s, the other day at John Rickards’ blog. Crimespace. The list goes on.

It isn’t anything against those people or sites. The main reason is that lately I’ve noticed it more and more, this trend to pick arguments on forums and blogs. I mean, I’ve seen it before. I’ve left forums over it. But three times recently I either posted an offhand observation about something that related to the post or information intended to be helpful to someone based on questions they asked or comments they made about a concern and someone else came along and decided to rip my comments apart. It’s very strange, because I certainly didn’t feel I posted a comment that was argumentative in any of those cases. I’ll be the first to admit that we don’t always come off as ‘casually disagreeing, just stating a different perspective’ sometimes, even if that’s what we intend. A lot of how we take comments depends on our own mood at the time and our experiences. And how well we know a person. There are a couple people I don’t know well that I occasionally exchange emails with and every time I get one from them I critically analyze it, and I’m never sure if they’re mad at me or not. The good thing about that is, I recognize how much how I’m feeling when I read it factors into how I read it.

And so it’s easy for people, in a bad mood, perhaps misreading something, to wander along, not like an inference they draw from an offhand comment and go medieval on the commenter’s ass.

I had this experience once, where things got heated between myself and another person, and I did go and try to sort things out. They never responded to my messages. Then, through a bizarre set of experiences, they ended up talking to me and I found out they hadn’t ignored me – they’d never gotten the messages. Misunderstanding compounded by technological snafus eventually led to sorting it out and being friends. Being an adult isn’t about not ever having conflict or making mistakes in your relationships: It’s about how you own up to them and learn to move on.

Sometimes it will be possible to repair what’s been broken. Other times not. But that’s a different discussion.

But back to the point, I have often seen people getting/giving bad advice on forums and blogs. I’ve said it before: I have a real concern with unpublished people dispensing advice like they know everything. Such sites have been dissected time and again – anyone remember the discussion about the site where aspiring authors were encouraged to lie about publication credits in their query letters to agents? Miss Snark, rightly so, ripped that person a new one on her blog months ago. No matter who you get advice from check it out. You can’t afford to be a copy of Writer’s Market? Go to a second-hand store and get a used one, at least to start, but in all honesty if you’re serious about becoming an author you can’t afford not to. Far too much of “the blind leading the blind” these days. And you know what? You will waste a lot of time and spend a lot of money on submissions that will not produce results if you listen to some of the half-baked advice out there. I mean, damn, I’ve been in this game long enough to have a book out and an agent, and I will be the first one to admit I’m still learning.

And I have news for you. Think that once you’ve crossed the line and become an author that all other authors will embrace you warmly? Not so. Sadly, you start to experience different requests. I recently saw an author be publicly rude to another, completely unprovoked. And the person they did this to was an author they’d asked to blurb them, who had. I could go on with this story, but I won’t. I’ll end it here with simply this: You pay back the kindness shown to you. That doesn’t mean you blurb the people who blurbed you, but when others ask you to blurb them you at least consider it. I’m making my way (either by name or Spinetingler review quote) onto a third book cover presently (although it will be months and months before some of them are out). I prefer they use Spinetingler, as my motive certainly isn’t publicity for myself, but when I’ve been asked for a straight blurb obviously my name is used instead. And the only thing I can say is that I am thankful there’s a small thing I can do to pay back some of the kindness shown to me by people in the industry, who were willing to endorse my first book. I went through all manner of stuff – those who offered to blurb and then didn’t, being told said author only blurbed books from big presses or whatever. I don’t care about any of that stuff. If the book is one I’d recommend I’ll consider blurbing it, end of story. It’s about the writing.

The recent situations certainly haven’t been limited to me, as I’ve said. I’ve seen this happen time and again to others, and it got me thinking. Wondering about how to handle things. I think it’s safe to say that beyond email queries from writers, which I handle case by case, I’ll be very careful about saying anything on forums.

It certainly helps me understand why some authors withdraw from the public domain between book tours. I understand why some are apprehensive when approached by new writers and even other authors. There are those that will take any access and use it to their advantage if they can. I’ve never wanted to be like that, but how do people know unless they know you? I have my own set of rules and standards I go by. I would never, for example, ask Ian Rankin to blurb a book. I had someone willing to blurb the last book, but they gave me a lot of other help so I passed on the blurb offer and said next time. Crazy? Maybe. But so goddamn appreciative of the wonderful friends I have, grateful for their support, and I never want to take advantage of them.

I have never wanted to be perceived as a snob. It most certainly isn’t about me being better than anyone else – I’m just a person who happens to be published.

And the one thing I do know is that people will always read into your motives. People who don’t even know you will take two things that may not even be connected (book published/stop posting on this forum) and form conclusions (snobby bitch thinks she’s too good for us now).

The other thing I know is that you can’t let that stuff consume you. There are always people who will jump to conclusions. There will be people out there who, for whatever reasons, will be predisposed to think the worst of you. Trust me, not everyone is happy for you if you have any level success. (And frankly, I’m pretty low on that scale. I’ve enjoyed a few achievements, that’s it.)

Your real friends, the people who really matter, won’t jump to conclusions. Even if you say or do something that seems stupid they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. And the people worth knowing will keep an open mind as well.

No sense worrying about the rest.

And in other news, It doesn't matter how many copies have already sold: This is a fantastic author with a book that's receiving much critical acclaim. If you haven't bought your copy yet go and do it today. Could not happen to a nicer person either.

14 comments:

S. W. Vaughn said...

Man. Y'all are making me think far too hard this morning...

Great post, Sandra. A lot of excellent points. What an f-ed up industry we work in.

My brain! It hurts! :-)

John R. said...

Oooh. Now I want to know what you deleted...

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

I'm with you on every point except "So what, exactly, do you do if you want to be an author? There is no degree program."

There are creative writing degrees: the BFA and MFA. Also, one or two universities are now offering a PhD in creative writing, though I think the emphasis is more pedagogical.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sorry Sonya! I was so wiped out this morning I was hoping it made sense, though.

John, what I was going to say was... ah, maybe later I'll share.

Patrick, it still isn't the same. You don't apply for a job as an author in the same way at all, and most publishers don't care if you have a degree or not as such. Like being a musician - nobody cares if you did all your piano levels unless you're going to be a concert pianist, I suppose. But if you're going to be a rock star nobody gives a damn about how far you got with piano.

norby said...

I'm with John, I've seen what you do say, what the hell are you deleting? Seriously, I know what you mean. I'm on a couple of forums, and even just as a reader, some people take themselves way too seriously. I find myself biting my tongue a lot because it's just not worth the piss off that will follow. I can only imagine how much more ego is involved when the people are the ones writing the books.

Steve Allan said...

An MFA degree does create an apprentice atmosphere. I've worked with some of the best, and without their help I wouldn't be nearly as good as I am (if I am indeed any good). Granted, you're not looking over their shoulder when they are physically writing, but one wouldn't learn from watching anyway.

I did like your observations about people giving out bad advice. I see it all the time. There's a part of me that wants to respond and tell them they're idiots, but I think they'll discover that on their own - or blame someone else; either way, they won't be happy.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yeah Steve, they'll learn. I'm all about sparing people unnecessary pain but this has become a scenario where truly no good deed goes unpunished. Life has enough headaches, I don't need to bring more on myself.

Norby, actually, it's my more serious comments I'm deleting. Nobody gets too rattled by the flippant jokes. And like I said, the issues aren't with John or Stuart or anyone whose blog I read, just people who stick their nose in.

I had an email a few weeks back that I wish I could dissect on my blog. It was absofuckinglutely hysterical, really, but alas, I have my limits and shaming a person to death publicly just isn't nice.

Even if they bloody well deserve it.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Oh, it definitely makes sense! :-)

SAND STORM said...

Well damn girl something set you off!
I do agree with your points on forums and stopped taking part long ago as it was more a pain than a benefit.
Some people just seem to live for the chance to attack....sad little cretins that they are.
Once we start blogging it takes a bit of time to sort out the cyber-friends who genuinely want to help and the shit disturbers.
I have found many more of the former rather than the latter once I dropped the forums from my reading list.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sand Storm, annoyance just culminated to the point of severe frustration. I don't even go to any of those forums designed for advice to new authors - this is usually stuff coming up on author forums. There are a few forums I still drop by, seldom post on, never talk about because I wouldn't encourage anyone to go have their head severed by the type of folk that primarily post there these days. Must be the whole 'fascinated by watching a train wreck in motion' thing that keeps drawing me back. Could it get any worse? By golly, it did!

I agree I've found more of the former than the latter but there are a few blogs I steer clear of as well - they just seem to draw out a certain type of commenter.

Daniel Hatadi said...

Sounds like you're in the same mood as I am, Sandra. :)

Daniel Hatadi said...

Hmm. It's time I had a beer.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sorry to hear that Daniel. Let me buy you a drink!

Patry Francis said...

Laura Lippman's new one looks fabulous. Thanks for reminding me I need to order one.