Friday, April 06, 2007

Beyond The Writing

I always maintain that it’s about the writing, not the personal. And it would be nice if that were completely true…

It isn’t. Not in every situation, anyway, and it can be helpful to know when external rules apply.

For example…

1. Person buys book and reads it. Probably safe to say appreciation will be based solely on the quality of the writing, unless it’s a damn good author photo.
2. Person who is not your mother, spouse, sibling, former English teacher or otherwise connected with you is sent book and reads it. This person will likely base their opinion of the work on the writing.

On the other side…

1. Person submits story to magazine. In past they have submitted there and been accepted, refused to make necessary corrections to the story and argued over various things. Whether or not the magazine considers publishing them again will probably not just be about the writing.
2. Someone wants to sell an anthology. It won’t just be about the writing – they will have to consider having some known names contributing in order for the package to be marketable.

When I attended Harrogate 2005 there was a panel on getting published, and one of the things that Johnny Geller said was that he’d sometimes read the work and not be completely sold, but then meet the author and get a sense of the person and decide he could work with the person. At the time I remember thinking that was a bit unfair. Shouldn’t it just be about the writing? However, I can appreciate the reasoning that goes into things now.

It isn’t just the quality of the writing. It’s also whether or not the work is marketable. But there’s even more for agents and publishers to consider, and one of those things is productivity.

Workers are assessed on their level of productivity in a variety of ways, and the writing world is no different. If someone is invited to contribute to five anthologies, agrees to all of them, and only delivers to one it doesn’t look professional. Unless there are reasons (such as illness, family tragedy) that factor in, the editors the author failed to deliver for will be less likely to work with them again. This works in reverse as well.

I was reading Miss Snark the other day, and she said something that really got me thinking. I value clients who understand this is a business (for the most part) not operating at breakneck speed but also not at a standstill either. When I ask for something, I expect to hear back in a day or two at the most. If it's a task, it might not get done in a day or two but I'd like to hear you got the email and you're working on it.

The people I prefer to work with do that.
I've learned to be pretty clear about that preference before moving to "wanna sign up at Snark Central" but we never get to that point if you lollygag about. If lollygag is your default mode, that bodes ill for whether I think we're a good match… Agents vary, but I bet if you asked 100 of them, all 100 prefer someone who's prompt rather than not. This isn't some sort of rule. It's just a word to the wise. Have your stuff ready: bio, synopsis, people who might write blurbs if you have them, those kinds of things.

That shouldn’t seem like rocket science. It shouldn’t seem that complicated…

Yet clearly, Miss Snark felt it necessary to say it and, in my own limited experience on the receiving end of submissions from writers, I can appreciate it.

I’ve screwed up when I’ve submitted to the odd place. Okay, early days, we all make mistakes. But I learned from it. I didn’t walk around blaming the publication – I blamed me for failing to include everything they asked for.

We have submission guidelines and I’m continuously amazed at how many people don’t follow them. And if someone sends us a query, someone submits a story without the release form… Sayonara Sunshine.

And, if someone submits a story and then withdraws it and we see it’s because they did simultaneous submissions we remember that.

When we started out I tried hard to set things up in such a way that we could be fair to writers. The result was that some people tried to take advantage. Inevitably, you get to the point where your submission volume is such that scratching a few names off the list isn’t going to hurt your feelings at all.

The reason I say this is not to pick on writers. It’s because I’ve started to understand, in some limited way, what agents and editors think.

There are a lot of things to consider when you’re trying to market your work… And I’ve been wrong. It isn’t just about the writing. It’s about a lot of other things. If you have a reputation that you consistently can’t finish projects or deliver on deadlines it’s going to be a mark against you. If you have a reputation for trashing people online it might not be seen as helpful. It will certainly impede your ability to get blurbs, do joint signing events, etc.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I didn’t start this blog to sell books. However, everything on this blog reflects on me. Getting an agent and getting a book deal can be affected by my behaviour. Now, I have an agent… Yet I’ve found myself thinking a fair bit recently about whether or not the tone of my blog should change.

On the one hand I don’t like that idea. However, I do understand it. Free speech is a wonderful thing, but it can cause problems. Evilkev discovered a co-worker’s blog once, where she railed at length about her dislike for him. Not everyone has a sense of humour or can shrug that off as easily as he did.

My 2 cents for the day is, if you think you’re ready to start querying for an agent/publisher, make sure you’re ready. And make sure you can deliver. I think having a book out already helps in one respect: I’ve already proven I can bring a book to completion. Shopping another project demonstrates I can finish more than one manuscript. This is also good. It means that I have a track record.

Someone once said that you shouldn’t be in a hurry to get your first book published because you only got one chance to make a first impression. I beg to differ. The minute you start getting short stories published, the minute you start blogging, you’ve made your first impression. All of it can factor in to a decision about whether or not someone wants to work with you.

And that’s not something to dismiss if you want to have a career. It’s one thing if you already have an agent and a big publisher and books on the shelves – you can afford to do what you want more than others.

Those of us who are working toward that goal have to consider our behaviour more carefully. It’s hard to get published, and publishers aren’t prepared to throw money at proven risks. Bear in mind what your blog communicates about you and whether or not it might be hurting you more than it’s helping.

After all, having a hundred hits on your blog every day sounds like a good thing… But not if the majority of those people are dropping by for their daily laugh at your expense.


angie said...

"Ouch!" cried the Procrastination Queen.

Left to my own devices, I'm entirely too slow. My one saving grace is that if I have a deadline, I'm almost always on time (barring, of course, extreme acts of god).

My balancing act is always one of rampant perfectionism and the need to git 'er done. I'm learning to put the perfectionism on the back burner. Better to have an imperfect completed project than an idealized never-completed book, short story, etc., no? After all, even when you sell your book, short story, whatever, you're gonna end up working with an editor anyway. So...put your best foot forward, but stop hemming and hawing about whether or not your pedicure is just so or your shoe needs yet another polish.

And for god's sake, don't make a bunch of commitments you can't keep. I have tons of respect for those who understand their limits and act accordingly. Consistently taking on more than you can deliver will inevitably come back and bite you on the ass. Hard.

Just my 2 oxidized coppers.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I'm with you. A person only gets so much slack. Say you're in the scenario where you overcommit. One editor on their own might say, "Okay, I understand." But if they have lunch the next week with a couple other editors and one happens to mention 'Sandra Ruttan failed to deliver on a commitment' and one or two other people chime in with the same sentiment... well, it's not a positive impression, is it?

Whenever people do stuff in the public domain they have to consider that.

I work really well under deadline. I can procrastinate with the best of them, but I like to set a target and meet it. I can write manuscripts in quick turnaround time - the fact that I've completed four proves that to me. But still, I work ahead so that I have the appropriate time to do my best, and then I expect to do revisions as well.

I think you're striking the right balance Angie. Besides, a project can only be brought to true perfection when complete. Incomplete, it's just pretty writing at best.

JamesO said...

I learned a long time ago that trying to please everyone never works. Agreeing too readily to do things has a nasty habit of biting you in the backside.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Of course it never works James. You have to have priorities. Just stick to pleasing me and I'll be happy. ;)

Vincent said...

For what it's worth, I think you've got the tone of your blog just write. Certainly whenever I've read posts where you've had to vent spleenage, no one else is ever implicated. Evil Kev's co-worker demonstrated a level of naivety way beneath you. I've found your blog is always written considerately, for yourself, others and readers, and considered free speech never needs censoring.

And I suppose Miss Snark is also writing about consideration. Part of being professional is showing that you realise other people have a job to do as well. That means being honest about whether you can do something and when you can do it. One of my project managers at work is constantly struggling with people who won't communicate what they're doing and how they're getting on. Turning something in late is one thing, but when you haven't bothered to give advance notice that you might miss your deadline and the person waiting for your work then has to chase you to find out why it was late and when they can expect it... It kinda rubs people up the wrong way.

Vincent said...

By the way, beginning of the previous comment, I meant to put 'right' instead of 'write'. It wasn't a typo, it was a soundo or a thinko, where I type the word that sounds like the word I'm thinking of instead of the word I meant to write. It certainly wasn't intended as a pun.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Well, thanks Vincent! That means a lot to me.

That said, sometimes people decide they can read my mind and fly off the handle because they're sure they know what I'm talking about, and 99% of the time they're wrong. But can I convince them? No.

And I have learned that pledging Spinetingler deadlines from me is not a good idea. Oh boy. Sometimes I'm just swamped, and I don't always expect it, so your comments there about letting people know if you're behind are most applicable.

Jack Ruttan said...

It's a tough world, you know. I've done some embarassing stuff, literarily speaking, and now that I'm in the entertainment thing, feel a little bit defensive. Hadn't had all the experience I need to be totally centered and professional all the time.

Well, I try to be on time for most things, and meet deadlines. As Woody Allen said (I know, he's a creep), 90 per cent of anything is showing up.

Been reading your other posts, and going through stuff myself, which seems to be working out, though I don't blog about it. Still a TV writer. Good luck with it, and don't get too sucked in.