How Not To Run Around With Your Pants Down
So, I’m still finishing Darkship Revenge which means this is a quicky post. I was — ahem — inspired by the sad spectacle in Amanda’s comments yesterday (no, really sample them, they’re amazing.)
It occurred to me that to an extent you’re all my, or perhaps our (shared) fledgelings. Except of course for those of you who have more experience than we do and can therefore add to the points, if you wish.
It used to be, at least for those of us who came in the normal way, that a new writer, in the process of breaking in acquired mentors, and the mentors gave them tips so they didn’t make fools of themselves in public. By my time this system was already somewhat in decay and I kept running into people who made mistakes my mentors would have skinned me — or at least disowned me — for.
However, with the proliferation of indie, I’m seeing a lot more kid writers running around the net (and conferences) with their metaphorical pants around their metaphorical ankles and fingerpainting the walls in shades of brown.
I would hate for that to happen to one of mine, even if just one who follows my lessons here or over at PJM and as such, I’d like to at least ward off some of the worst behavior.
This behavior, btw, is not because they are bad people, by and large — though some are more clued than others — but because all they know about writers and writing they learned from TV, movies, books and the zeitgeist. And if there’s a profession more maligned than ours it’s my husbands. Mathematicians have even more lore attaching to them than we do, and most of it wrong.
So, in the interest of setting some things right, here goes:
1- Writers don’t all know each other.
We know a lot of other writers, but not (trust me) all of them. In science fiction and fantasy we tend to run into each other at the same conferences, the same forums, and generally have a fairly good idea who the other is, even if we’ve never met them.
In science fiction, too, as far as I know, it’s all black and white, and it’s always been. What I mean is you either love or hate each other. Of the ones you know. But there are circles (geographic, political, and time wise. Where you live, whom you lean towards, and when you broke in) and beyond those a lot of us are blind. I have an agent friend who routinely calls me with “What do you think of X” and I not only know the person but never heard of their books, even though I (of course) read in the field.
The practical implications of this are that you’re not going to be discussed at the weekly poker game between Stephen King and J. K. Rowling. Not even if you want to. And by and large, if you’re smaller than they are, even at midlister level? No one is even going to talk about you, except maybe in passing: “I was at this panel with Jane Smith, and” or “I heard that thing Jane Smith said.”
1a- Things you say won’t be remembered by all other writers. You’re not the center of their universe, hard though that is to believe. In fact, if you act like an idiot at a con, it will need to be pretty amazing — on the punching a bestseller or p*ssing in the punch bowl level of amazing — before anyone remembers it the next con. Unless you make an habit of it, it will pass. You see, every pro at cons meets SO MANY people that it all becomes a blur. In my case, most often I remember “nice/not nice” and it’s just a feeling attaching to name or face.
1b) you can — d*mn skippy get blacklisted — I worked pretty d*mn hard at blacklisting myself. The way to become blacklisted is to either not guard your tongue about things like quantum print runs in a certain publisher’s statements and/or to hold the wrong/unapproved/frowned upon political opinions. Or to fail to proclaim the right (left) ones loudly enough, depending on the publishing house and how crazy they are.
You know what? These are my middle fingers to those who would curtail my beliefs or speech. I don’t go around picking fights needlessly but when it is something that, to quote Giovanni Guareschi in Don Camilo, “Cries to the heavens for vengeance”, I believe it’s unethical and anti-future to shut up.
But even I have a career, and even if Baen didn’t exist, I’d still have one indie. With indie, speaking your heartfelt mind won’t blacklist you.
1c) Speaking your mind is not the same as running around like a drunken Irishman picking fights with everything including the lampposts.
I speak on politics, and occasionally on societal trends/interests. I’ve been known to take issue with articles in Esquire and wonder what is going through the writers’ mind.
What I don’t do is pick on colleagues, people who work for my publisher or other people in the field who have never gone after me in public.
Look, I love my publisher — Baen books, if any of you don’t know it — but I’m not them. They pick books I wouldn’t pick. that’s because they’re not Hoyt books, but Baen books. And though they’re stigmatized as “right wing” all that means is that they don’t blacklist writers to the right of Lenin. But they do publish the whole spectrum, from communist to… well, me. This means that yes, I do have pretty severe ideological and style disagreements with writers in the Baen stable. We just don’t talk about it in public. Or at least I don’t. Doing so would be the equivalent of running around punching your office mate because you don’t like the color of his tie.
You just don’t engage. And neither do your family members. It actually took me some time, particularly as the relationship with my agent soured before I left, to convince Dan that he couldn’t say what he thought to her, because, yes, it affected my career.
Yes, sometimes your colleagues — or their books — will piss you off. You know what, you can rant or rave at your family or your cat, or you can run six miles on the threadmill. If you wouldn’t pick a fight at your place employment you don’t do it either when it’s a virtual place.
2- No one is out to steal your work.
No, seriously. First, ideas aren’t copyrightable. Second, there are a lot more ideas any writer has at his disposal than there is time to write them. I’ll probably die with a file of a hundred ideas never made into writing.
Besides, no matter what movies and stories tell you, there is no killer idea. There is a combination of idea/the way it’s told/and the time and circumstances of release. Harry Potter is not new. It contains hardly any new elements. BUT it hit at the right time to go really big, and it had the right cover, the right push. You could have stolen Harry Potter in every detail, published it a year earlier and no one would know.
One of the most pitiable things I’ve ever seen is the spectacle of writers running around telling everyone not to steal their ideas. One of the weirdest ones was the kid at a con who made an entire panel of professionals promise to not steal his idea. Which turned out to be a shop that sold magical artifacts. I kid you not. The oldest idea in the field.
Yes, of course there is such a thing as plagiarism, but that involves stealing the EXECUTION of the idea, i.e. copying the actual words in substantial percentage.
By all means, put a copyright mark in the books you publish, but do not put them in the manuscript you pass around at a critique group, and don’t refuse to tell someone your idea because “they might steal it” — that just marks you as a newbie.
3- Speaking of marking you as a newbie:
Just a few years ago, I realized either a lot of people were naming their kids Author, Writer or Novelist, or the newbies in my field had got off their collective rocker.
This used to be advice given to us before social media: don’t put writer on your card. If you’re doing it right, they’ll remember that.
I guess it’s more needful than ever for people’s egos to affirm their real writerness (totally a word) now that there are no gatekeepers.
Look, the way to affirm you’re a writer is to write, and to take it seriously. Putting “writer” or novelist, or author on your card, your facebook page or your blog isn’t going to make you any more “real” than you are.
But Sarah, you’ll say, how will people know it’s me, and not another Jane Smith?
Well, if they’re looking for you, they’ll know.They’ll know because of your friends, your place of origin, the stuff you post. Fans are amazing that way.
And if they’re not looking for you, putting “writer” or “author” on your page won’t make them look for you, either.
A great part of this — a great part of any entertainment field — is “fake it till you make it.” Does Kevin J. Anderson put “Author” on his page? Oh, h*ll no. Maybe under “profession” but nowhere else. Are there other Kevin Andersons? Tons. Does it matter? No. You know you’ve found the right one, because his friends are sf people, and because he posts on sf stuff (and his own writing.)
So, when your first, or your 500th fan finds you, you don’t want to display your insecurity with that “writer” label, and make him wonder if he was wrong about you.
4- Whether you’re known or trying to be known, your putting your stuff out there makes you a public figure.
This comes with certain … precautions. Some of them are to discourage stalking, and others are to discourage the sort of familiarity that breeds contempt.
First, I advise you to create a persona and decide where the boundaries are. I share an amazing lot with my fans, and it’s even true, but there are things I won’t share. Unless you’re a friend, not just a fan, you won’t hear of family spats, or of issues with the extended family. You won’t hear that I had an underwear malfunction (oh, it’s been decades, anyway.) You won’t hear if I hated someone’s book or someone’s sweater (at least if it’s someone nice.)
Why? Because it’s none of your business. You can hear about the cats, about derp fish (he’s better but still not WELL, dang it) and sometimes about something funny that happened in the family. You don’t need to know about things that neighbors wouldn’t know in the old days.
And as a writer, you shouldn’t share that stuff, either.
I know more than one writer whose divorce became a thing of fandom discussion. It never helps the writers’ image, or the writers’ career. Yes, the fans want close to you, but they need to see you as professional. You’re not their spouse or them yours. Think. Would you tell this stuff to all your office colleagues? If not, hold your tongue.
Part of this is keeping your kids, your outdoor cats, anything that might be vulnerable out of the limelight. Don’t publish kids pictures until they’re old enough to defend themselves. There are crazy people out there. Not many, but all you need is one.
And for the love of heaven, do not — DO NOT — run around blogs and facebook waving lawyers in people’s faces.
Don’t threaten to sue people because they repeated something you said; because they don’t like something you said; because they told you your sweater is ugly.
Not only is suing someone A LOT harder than you think, but people who find lawyers crazy enough to sue EVERYONE become pariahs. If you’ve been suing everything in sight (or even threatening to) no one is going to work with you on that anthology. No one is going to want to invite you into a shared world. No one is going to want to be around you.
Inform yourself on what actually is slander or defamation, and don’t use the words like magical talismans.
Don’t assume people either love you or hate you. Most of them don’t do either. And if you come out assuming one or the other, you’ll make their minds for them, and they won’t want to have anything to do with you.
Oh, yeah, if on a con panel about say “favorite heroes in science fiction” try to have some from books you read, unless the question is “how did you create a likable character?” Because if all you’re doing is saying “in my book” and no one has read you, you’re boring them.
And if you break every one of these rules, here is the one you should NEVER break. DON’T BE BORING.
Some people interpret “don’t pick fights” as “always be nice” which translates to “be bland.” This is why I said, if you feel strongly about something (not someone, or at least not someone not a celebrity outside your field) feel free to talk about it. Just do it entertainingly.
If you must pick fights, toot your own horn and generally be a boor, do it amusingly. Declaim your greatness while swinging from a chandelier from your toes. Tell people about your sexual prowess while sashaying down con hallways in a pink feather boa. If you amuse people, they’ll forgive you a multitude of sins. But if you bore them, they’re gone. And they’ll never ever ever pick your book up and read it.
That’s all I can think of off the top of my head. If anyone has anything to add in the comments, do so.
Now pull up your pants, and good luck.