[Charlie here: Yes, this is way late, because I suck. And it's way long for a BPF, because Sarah said something that needs to be said.]
From the moment I started trying to get published, I felt like I was cringing, cap in hand, at someone’s door, hoping for a handout.
This was because, broadly speaking, I was standing at someone’s door, cringing, hoping for a handout. To get into the door, to get where I wanted to go, I needed the magical gate to open. And I couldn’t open the gate myself. Worse, I knew that I wasn’t the only one standing at that gate, with my fresh morning face and starched pinafore. There were all sorts of competitors, from somber non-fiction writers to glamorous vavaboom erotica writers in low-cut evening frocks. If you didn’t get past that point, you wouldn’t be published. Period. That is all there was to it.
Every book on publishing, every lecture by a passing writer stressed one thing: you have to act professional. Yes, we know, you might be writing in your spare time, burning the midnight oil, surviving on cheap tuna and dreams, but when the publisher talks to you, you have to act as though this were your only job, your only assignment. Present a professional appearance, act in a professional way.
By and large, most people did. I mean, there were crazy people out there, don’t get me wrong; there are crazy people everywhere. When I ran a small press magazine that paid a fraction of nothing, we got all sorts of ah… interesting people. There were people who somehow found our unlisted number and called us to ask if we had read their submission… the day the submission should have arrived; people who submitted on purple, violet-scented paper; people who stamped the envelope “the aliens ate my shorts.”
These were not professional behaviors, but we were not a professional magazine. And even then most of the submissions were professional and correct, angling for the average $15 we paid per story in a quiet, matter of fact, well behaved way.
Which brings us to the shoe on the other foot. At the same time I was also a writer, and submitting to small press magazines. Don’t ask. Someone had told me you had to break in by steps.
The lower the magazine paid, I found, the crazier the rejection was likely to be. Forever treasured in my bosom is the rejection that accused me of being xenophobic against Portuguese people, of never having left the US and of being a “narrow minded pain.” But there were other extremely interesting ones. For instance the person who – on my giving a semi-pro (the old Pirate Writings) credit on my cover letter – accused me of being stuck up and rubbing their nose in how superior I was. (I swear, all I had written was “I’ve sold a short story to Pirate Writings.”)
The professional magazines were, of course, more professional, but even there… well, they might say they would reply in three months and take six. Yes, we know, everyone has unexpected crunches, but that lack of congruence between advertised time and real time has been around as long as I have been a writer (far too long.)
Then there were various agents… We won’t go there. Half the time you sent in a submission, you got back a note recommending his friend the book doctor. Agents would lambast you apropos nothing, and treat you like a lowly petitioner.
You took it because you had to. And you kept smiling and acting professional. I expect it was a lot like going to casting calls [She's right -- Charlie], all dressed up, and being asked to show your behind, or whatever, because the producer is in a funny mood. But if you want the job, you perform.
In the middle of all this if you got a courteous response back, you almost expected something bad. I still remember the rejection from an editor with whom I ended up working (no, not Baen) telling me I wrote very well, but they hated my world, my characters and my plot. The rejection had taken four years, during which I could not submit anywhere else.
This is not a tale of woe. It is the way it was. There were many suppliers, and a bottleneck when it came to demand. There might be a million readers for my book, but I had to convince one of six publishing houses of this. And there were thousands of other writers trying to do the same.
So you pulled up your pants, you brushed your teeth, and you did what you had to.
Which is why a lot of writers have a very fuzzy idea of what “professional” means.
After years and years of having to stand there, cap in hand, you start to think not just that people have the right to order you around, but that being a writer is some sort of sacred priesthood, instead of a skilled craft that produces objects for sale.
Perhaps this is also an effect of writing being an art and an undefined art, at that. Undefined? You say. Undefined. It’s not like there is a universal way to judge how “artistic” a book is.
My own internal judgment of what constitutes art is that it leaves behind a feeling larger than itself, or an insight that transcends the medium. When contemplating, say, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, I experience a more intense feeling and a …realization that would evade me in looking out at a starry night. When reading Pratchett’s I Shall Wear Midnight or Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy, I receive feelings and understanding deeper than reading the summary of the plot.
This effect is of necessity subjective, particularly with books. With the visual arts, or even music, the “entry” is easier. A sad piece of music, say, is likely to make 90% of people sad. If you draw something truly beautiful 90% of people will agree it’s beautiful. (Unless, in both cases, you’re in one of the more… outré areas of composition.)
But when you’re telling a story, the reader might hate your book for the plot, the character, the world building or – simply – for the language. I find for instance that in trying to read Dragon Riders again, the language puts me off. No idea why. Any or all of these being slightly off, might mean that you only hit that “sublime effect” on 10% of people. Or none at all. (Heck, most of them might not pick it up, because you have a rocket on the cover. Or something.)
So, the “It’s interesting, but is it art?” always comes up, and a lot of the “real artists” will sneer when writers try to be members of their fraternity. “You’re just telling stories.”
The other day, in a site I like, a commenter was going on about how if you’re writing anything in genre, it’s not art, because it’s not going to evoke that “elevated feeling” and how commercial prose lacks “something.” I was irked, and I’m not a good person. I answered with “Yeah, that Bill Shakespeare, writing fluff to get apprentices to throw their greasy cloaks in the air. Not high literature at all. Now, Bacon, that’s elevated stuff.” And left.
Because the truth is in literature, you’ll never know if what you’ve done is art or not. You can’t. Art is judged by both reach and permanence. How many people experience that transcendental something from your work, and will it be so strong, will you speak to something so essential that they’ll experience it years from now; centuries from now? I bet you that in Alpha Centauri, if we ever have colonies there, they’ll be staging Romeo and Juliet, though all of the culture and history be lost. But will they be reading Harry Potter? Fifty Shades of Gray? The Bridges of Madison County? Who knows?
Harry Potter spoke to a lot of people, surely, but was it time/space bound? Or will it continue speaking? Who knows?
Which is why the best writers can do is “be professional” – write the best book you can. Be the best craftsman you can. Perhaps in centuries to come people will sing your praises. Or perhaps you’ll be a line in a trivia game about the twenty first century. Or maybe not even that. You can’t tell and you can’t control it. All you can is write the best you can, using the best techniques you can.
Which is a problem.
Because in a way it is art. I’ve spoken here before – and any of you who is a writer knows – of how much of it depends on what the subconscious knows or lets you do.
So you’re caught between the artistic and the commercial, and you develop weird rituals and weird ideas. (I was going to say illusions, but I don’t know if they are.)
Some of these illusions are benign. Or relatively so. For instance, I believe I’m “supposed” to be writing, that it’s part of my “purpose” for a given definition of purpose.
Does that mean it is? Well, it means it’s not worth my time arguing with myself to do anything else, because the subconscious has a “vocation” for telling complex lies stories.
The problem is that many writers are not … self aware enough to distinguish the purpose to themselves from the purpose of their work in the world. And that publishers, agents, and, yes, professional organizations, over the last …oh 40? Years, have encouraged this.
Your writing would be picked up, more often, for its “message” or its “startling idea” than for anything else. Partly because the gatekeepers also can’t judge except how it affects THEM. And also because, more and more, over the last 40 years, the gatekeepers were ideologues.
This is why we end up with publishers judging writers on things other than their writing, and getting the confused impression that they need someone who is “glamorous” or “interesting” and why if you’re of any ethnicity other than whitebread American, the publisher will try to push you to write about that. And it is why we are treated to the spectacle of a professional organization trying to enforce morality or enlightenment or whatever.
This is not a post about SFWA, but they are a case in point in this attitude. I’m tired of hearing “I don’t want to be in an organization with someone who believes x y z.” Really? REALLY? The organization is supposed to fight for professional rights. That means that it’s sort of like, oh, a plumber’s union.
Would you say “I wouldn’t be in a plumber’s union with someone who believed the Earth is flat”? Why?
Even if you get to moral behavior. Say one of your fellow plumbers is a philanderer. You might not recommend him to a client with a pretty daughter, but would you quit the organization in disgust?
However, since writers view themselves as minor preachers, this confusion occurs.
Mind you, I wouldn’t be in a writers’ group (particularly meeting at my house) with someone who hated foreign born people. But do I care if half of a large group – say RWA – hates foreign born Americans? No. I care if they monitor publishers and demand better rates, advise on tax issues, offer insurance!
The problem is, because of the imbalance of power in publishing, for years writers got used to dancing to whatever tune was piped. Did the publishers want people who were serious and wrote about mothers in the workplace: everything was mothers in the workplace, from romance to mystery. Did they want frivolous single women obsessed with shoes? They infected all genres. And the organizations, of necessity, became a club of who was in and who was out.
Well – that’s past now. Yes, the up-front money is still in traditional publishing. But there’s gold in them there indie hills.
You don’t have to dance to the tune of anybody’s piping. This article is about writers, but I think that’s propagating to most professions.
Respect yourself. Act like a professional, but demand your publisher or anyone you do business with do the same. I cut out everyone but the publisher who is as professional as I am.
I do appreciate not everyone can. And certainly not (yet) every profession. But I think some form of “indie endeavor” is coming for most professions starting with those with the grossest imbalances in power.
And when it does, you need to be aware of what’s real and what has been imposed by the distorted situation. What is your business, and what isn’t.
And the fact that a business is not, in fact, a holy priesthood. No matter how much people try to tell you it is.
Respect yourself. Do the best you can. And expect other people to behave as professionally as you try to. This is the way it must be, going forward.
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