Oct 252012

When people ask what I  do and I  tell them I  write for a living, they’re usually eager to hear all about it; they have a million questions. I find this bloody strange, since so many people don’t seem to read books. Regardless, they often seem gobsmacked that they’ve actually met someone who writes. It’s not so much that they’re stunned to meet someone who writes for a living. I’m always necessarily vague about the details of that, because almost twenty years of being a sex educator has taught me that the last thing I want to get into a conversation with a new acquaintance about is sex, porn, and erotica. It would be like talking with someone I met on the bus about gun control– in my experience, it’s a path of tears.

Anyway, once someone knows that I write for a living, I find that our interactions tends to follow a certain very small number of trends. After ten minutes of asking me rapid-fire questions about what it’s like to write, let alone write for a living, the talk goes one of two ways. Either the person is an aspiring writer or they’re not. If they’re not, then we talk about something  interesting — paint drying, for instance, or shuffleboard. If they are an aspiring writer, then we talk some more about writing.

Taking as a given that talking to me about writing is like talking to a guy who pumps gas in Oregon about how Oregon made it so gas station attendants have to pump gas, conversations with unpublished writers are actually pretty interesting to me. I often get to hear about their works in progress — but just as often, I get to hear why such works are still in progress — that is, why they haven’t finished them. There’s a lot to learn in that. In fact, I’d go so far as to say there’s probably more to learn about the business of writing from an unpublished writer than a published one.

You probably already know that there are a million reasons projects don’t get finished — whether they’re novels, short stories or freeway overpasses. For the occasionally-published writer or the frequently-published writer who has a project or two they never get around to, the reasons are often creative or structurally.

But for people who never get anywhere — not just who think they might like to write and never do, but who sit down and write, but never finish a project, or finish it but never get it published — the reasons tend to be far more amorphous. Novels are one thing — they’re long. Finishing one to the point where someone might like to read it is, in my opinion, a bitch.

But with the advent of e-books, you can self-publish a 3,000-word short story in about six clicks on Amazon.com. It bewilders me that people who want to be writers don’t do that, just to test the waters. I don’t care how wretched your execrable prose is, it’s a hell of a lot better than some of the stuff I’ve paid money for. And yeah, you might sell only one copy of your 3,100-word werewolf romance epic — to your mom, or maybe your therapist.

But If you’re even remotely serious about writing, letting people read your work — and, if they foolish enough, even pay for the privilege — will give you valuable information about what it feels like to have your work out there in the marketplace…being pissed on.

And that is the biggest reason that unpublished writers don’t finish even short projects, don’t share them or join writing groups, don’t send their work out to publishers, don’t go to open-mic readings and perform their work in front of a drunk audience, don’t take the self-publishing route just for shits and giggles.

They’re underconfident — by which I don’t mean to imply that their work is any good; it might be, or it might not be. But in today’s world of easy e-book publishing — not to mention free stories all over the web — what unpublished writers lack is something that writers who distribute their work, whether professionally or in fan fic forums, have learned to obtain.

The critical element for putting your work out there is the willingness to make a fool of yourself if it comes to that.

Unpublished writers might have a very good reason for not wanting to make a fool of themselves — their work might be nowhere near being ready for public consumption. But like I said, there’s some godawful dreck published in classy hardbacks. Sometimes it makes its author a million clams.

If you’re in this category, think of it like that open-mic reading I talked about. Be wiling to get up and make a fool of yourself.

The good news is the audience is drunk as hell — by which I mean to say that some of them are belligerent and obnoxious, and some of them are giddy. Others are half-asleep.

And the good news is that even if you do make a fool of yourself, you’ll know what it feels like. Maybe that’ll make you stop, but I doubt it. You might find it’s addicting. And, like Camus’s Mersault, you may find on the last page that all that matters in the world, for you to feel a little less lonely, is that there be a great crowd in the square, and that they greet you with howls of execration.

The really good news is, it’s kind of a great feeling. So be willing to make a fool of yourself. Trust me, you’ll survive.

Oct 052012


As I’ve mentioned before, in many ways, I’m a queer beast—in the literary world, especially, because I’m an editor and publisher (for the great Renaissance E Books) as well as a pretty prolific writer. I know the biz from both ends, as someone rejecting as well as getting rejected. Wearing my editorial sombrero, I’ve noticed a trend in the stories and novels I’ve been reading … professional annoyances, pains in the derriere, pissing-off things, and just plain rude stuff that I thought I might vent … er, ah, share with you. This also gives me a chance to explain how to deal with editors—though, as with anything in professional writing, it’s very subjective. This is stuff that I consider important, or frustrating, etc., but another editor might feel completely differently about.

Before I get to the bits and piece of a submission, a bit of philosophy: despite how much writers hate it, an editor has no professional obligation to be nice, respond in a certain amount of time, give comments on a rejection, or answer any questions. The only time that changes is when a story has been accepted, and even then, there are no hard and fast rules. The worst that can usually happen is an editor getting a bad name, or getting a protest lodged against them with the National Writers Union. Getting ignored by or frustrated with an editor is just part of the game. The sooner a lot of writers realize that, the sooner they’ll make some real professional progress. Conversely, it’s very frustrating for an editor who tries their best to be polite, professional, and sympathetic to end up on the receiving end of some neurotic writer’s wrath: in short, roll with the bad and applaud the good—kind of a good life philosophy, too, ain’t it?

In that regard, it’s never a good idea to ask a lot of an editor. Simple questions (“What’s your deadline?” “Who’s your publisher?” “What’s your pay rate?” and so forth) are fine, but asking an editor to write, or a call just to let you know the manuscript came through okay are not: facing a huge stack of unread manuscripts to read, accept or reject, the last thing an editor wants to do is deal with more paperwork. Besides, an editor often doesn’t open an envelope (or read an attachment) until they’re ready to read—sometimes months after they’ve received it.

Politeness counts a huge deal. Often I’ll be extra polite or conscientious to a writer if they’ve been understanding and nice to me. I’ll always respond (or try to), but a demanding email or a cover letter dripping with arrogance is definitely a lower priority compared with someone who starts out: “I know you’re really busy—” or “Absolutely no rush, but I’d be grateful if—” and so forth. Like writers, a lot of editors just a little want kindness and respect: treat them that way and you’ll get a much better reaction. Start off with the assumption that they are being intentionally rude (as opposed to busy, dealing with a family emergency or who knows what) and you’ll usually get a rude response right back—as well as being burned into the editor’s mind as a “demanding jerk”—which can damage how they might read your work in the future.

Even though you may not get a polite response, always take the high road and start out that way. Yeah, it’s not fair to be polite to someone who’s rude, but getting into a hissing and spitting match won’t win you any battles. Besides, we editors talk to one another: being rude to a friend of mine will eventually get around to me, and vice versa. Which is also a way of dealing with someone who has treated you unfairly: tell your writing buddies—warn them if a certain editor is tough, or bad, to work with. Knowing ahead of time that an editor is slow, always rude, easy to annoy and so forth can save a lot of hassle, frustration and self-doubt if you or anyone else decides to work with them in the future.

If you happen to get rejected—and it will happen—in a particularly rude way then don’t fall into the trap of acting out, being spiteful. Like I said, editors talk to each other, so if you write a nasty letter back, or post a catty review of the editor’s books on some site or other, all that’s going to happen is you’re going to get not just that one editor’s door slammed in your face but possibly many others. I don’t like the way some editors treat authors but that doesn’t mean I condone attacks on them or their other books. Unfortunately, being a writer means having to do a lot of cheek-turning; if you can’t handle that, then find another line of work.

Now then, for some little things—cover letters, for instance: I like cover letters because they give me a clue as to the personality of the person I might be working with. Ideally, a cover letter should be professional, short, and give an editor the impression that the writer is going to be easy to work with. A bio is essential, but only share what’s important to your writing life. The fact that you work for the DMV, have five cats, and build model ships in your spare time is interesting—but not to me or any other editor. By the way, if you’ve never written before, or never for the genre or market you’re submitting to, don’t say it. After all, would you feel good about your doctor saying, “You know, I’ve never done something like this—but I think it came out well”?

Something I’ve mentioned before but absolutely have to say again: pick a snail-mail address and an email address that you can live with for a very long time. I am very, very tired of trying to reach a certain writer only to have their addresses bounce (both surface mail as well as email). Remember, if an editor can’t find you, they can’t accept you—no editor is going to spend valuable time trying to hunt you down. You get one, maybe two, rarely three shots—after that you just end up in the “rejected but can’t contact” pile. Also, if you submit anything via email be sure your attachment has all your contact info on it— no editor is going to dig through dozens (if not hundreds) of emails trying to match yours with a certain story.

While I’m fuming, let me toss off a few more pet peeves:

When sending reprints, do not just photocopy or scan the book or magazine the story first appeared in (you try reading a bad photocopy); Be sure to remember to put on the manuscript its number of words (which can be a deal-killer if the editor suddenly realizes the story’s way too long); Do not submit a story to two books or magazines simultaneously — there’s nothing worse that getting a book put together and then find out that a writer sold the story or book you just bought to someone else; Don’t start haggling over things likes rights or fees until you’ve been accepted (besides, the editor rarely decides that kind of stuff); If you don’t have a permanent email address then get one—and while I’m on the subject of email, please check your mail at least once a day: it can be very frustrating to try and reach someone only to have them spend weeks getting back to you.

Anyway, thanks for this space and time to let me, in my editorial chapeau, to share some thoughts and frustrations – in order to make up for my usual venom I promise in my next Streetwalker installment to reverse it all and talk about how to work with editors and publishers from a writer’s perspective.

In the meantime: Get a good email account and stick with it!