Where is that line beyond which you’ve screwed yourself as a writer (or, really, in any job involving the public at some point)? I’m tackling this topic precisely because I’m not an expert. I started this blog two years ago as a way to get familiar with writing articles without the pressure of an external editor. Over time, it has morphed into a chronicle of my journey into becoming a published author. I see the questions and worries I encounter along the way as issues that other new writers are probably struggling with as well, so I want to bring them up into the light and take the fear out of the process. Anxiety over how to act in public is my latest bugaboo, so the blog post by Mamatas was very well timed indeed.
Mamatas’s take on professional behavior leads me to think that the bar is a little lower than I suspected. This is not a slur. I tend to set the bar impossibly high for myself, and stories of writers behaving badly at public events abound among sf/f fans. It’s an intense relief to find out I’m worrying too much.
I’m a low-level writer; just beginning to get Known. What I do now is going to lay the foundation for the next twenty or thirty years: an awesomely intimidating prospect. But, looking back to Mamatas: “Behaving in a professional manner, for writers, is really quite easy.” His focus is on producing good quality writing, on time, honestly, and not stepping into the libel pool. Everything else is secondary if not actually irrelevant.
I agree. I remember conversations an awful lot like what he describes; I’ve probably been on one end or the other of the nonsense. The list of “do’s and don’ts” can feel intimidating and overwhelming, and it’s really easy to get sucked into the peer pressure of marketing oneself rather than focusing on being a writer. It took me up until ShevaCon, just this year, to get my bearings back on Who I Am.
The line past which a professional ought not go, however, has turned out to involve a heavy dose of common sense. A convention is business, not play. Common sense business courtesy applies, from dress to behavior; the rules are a lot looser at sf/f conventions, but not entirely dismissed.
Mamatas comments, in his post, on the absurd pressure on writers to be ultra bland in their publicly stated opinions. That point hit home for me; I learned that lesson the hard way myself. When I began writing book reviews, I gleefully shredded bad books and dutifully pointed out the flaws in good books. Then came the day I Was Published–and everything changed. I was petrified of writing a bad review, knowing that I could well meet the author at a convention, might even get to sit on a panel with them. How dare I write that a Big Name Author stunk it up on their latest endeavor? I could be blackballed for such atrociously rude behavior.
So I yanked back on the reins and toned down all of my reviews and only accepted books that I liked.
Didn’t take long before I got hammered by another blogger for a library-paste crap review. And you know what? He was right. I was being a coward. The function of a book reviewer isn’t to be nice. The function of a writer isn’t to be nice. It’s to haul out the guts of what is and deal with it in a very public fashion, no matter who that offends. Controversy means you’re being honest; it means you’re saying something real.
Now–there’s no need to push a discussion into an argument; no need to be loud and obnoxious about your opinions.If you have the guts to, say, admit that you support Sarah Palin to someone at a sf/f convention, you’re not going to lose that three-book deal you’ve been negotiating over with a Major (or even a Small) Publisher. If you insult the convention staff and act like they’re lower forms of life compared to You The Successfully Published Writer (yeah, I’ve actually seen this happen), you won’t lose that publishing contract either–but your welcome at that convention is likely to be very thin at best next year. And word will spread, and other conventions will be sloooooow to invite you. Which will really impact your sales, and thus your future welcome with the publisher.
In short: prima donna behavior and a lack of social mores don’t go far on the ground floor. Your writing may get you a contract, but your behavior gets you fans–and without a dedicated following of readers, you have nothing in short order. That’s the one point Mamatas seems to miss. Towards the end of his post, he gets snarky: “Here’s the dirty little secret, speaking as an editor … we laugh at ‘official’ websites–get enough fans that someone makes an unofficial one and then we might care….Your bookmarks and business cards generally tend toward the amateurish….95 percent of them go right into the trash.”
Wow. That’s depressing. And this is where I head down another road, as well; speaking as a beginning writer, I’m struggling with every step I take. I work my butt off on my official website and my Facebook presence and this blog. I love the bookmarks my publisher sends me, and I love handing them out. The editors I send my work off to might not care about any of that stuff; that’s OK. It’s not their job to care about any of that. The people who do care are the readers. The fans. The people without whom I wouldn’t need an editor or a publisher in the first place.
I think that’s an important distinction: I don’t give a rat’s ass if the editor ever looks at my website, because he’s not the target audience. While I completely agree with the majority of Mamatas’s points, that last bit of his post strikes me as mean-spirited and more than a little irrelevant. Being a writer is hard enough. There’s no need to sneer at the folks trying to figure out where the rungs on the ladder are.
But he closes with a dead-on point: “Can you write well? I mean, really write well. Note, not write well enough–we have plenty of folks who can do that…Can you write well?“
That is, at the end of the day, the gold ring we’re all going after. So raise your worry threshold and lower your standards, get the book done and the next one done, and the next one after that, all as fearlessly and openly and honestly as you can; don’t throw a drink in a Major Editor’s face or widdle on the tires of his BMW, and you’ll be just fine. ;p