Ways to Trash Your Writing Career: An Intermittent Series

bratManners are important. I’m not talking about not chewing with your mouth open (though please, don’t). I’m talking about that old stalwart you heard when you were a kid: Don’t be a Brat. Don’t talk back.

Really: someone on Amazon doesn’t like your book? Pound a pillow, burn her in effigy, but resist the impulse to get on line and explain in detail why You are Right and She is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong. It’s a losing game, I promise you.  The best you can do is say “I’m really sorry it didn’t work for you.”  Silence is even better.

Don’t Talk Back to Editors. You’d think this was a no-brainer, but sadly: no.

Case in point. An acquaintance of mine, years and years ago, wrote a novel.  Friend, who liked my mother and valued her literary judgment, sent her a copy of the manuscript and asked if she knew any editor who might be willing to look at the book.  So far, so good.  This is how careers get started.

My mother, ever helpful, read the manuscript, was dubious, but sent it on to one of her best friends who was, in fact, an editor at a Major Metropolitan Publishing House.  And the friend, because she loved my mother, read the book. And sent back an eight page letter to my friend, explaining why the book was not commercially viable, and giving detailed feedback about what problems needed to be fixed in order to render the thing more commercial and, therefore, more publishable.

Think about this: this editor took the time to read the manuscript and give pages and pages of useful feedback to the author on a book that she had no interest in publishing.  She did it because she and my mother were friends.  And what did my friend do?

Fired off a letter explaining the ways in which the editor was Wrong Wrong Wrong.

Now, even if the editor had been wrong (and, at least in my opinion, she was not), what my friend should have done was say “Thank you so much for your time and professional expertise, for which I did not pay a dime. I will take your cogent suggestions to heart, and hope to submit the revised novel to you at a later time.” After that, she could have gone home, pounded that pillow, burnt the effigies, whatever made her feel better.  But writing a tantrum-like letter to the editor was dumb in a Big Dumb Way.  Not only did she burn that particular bridge; she burnt a lot of bridges with one fell swoop.  Cause editors talk to each other.  They go out to lunch, they call each other, they email, and you can bet that if my friend submitted a book to someone who mentioned her name to my mother’s friend the editor, the feedback would not have been stellar.

This doesn’t mean you can’t advocate for your work.  If someone says “we want to publish your book, but we really want the protagonist to be a lizard,” it’s perfectly reasonable to say “You know, that’s not the book I wanted to write, and while I appreciate your viewpoint, that’s a dealbreaker for me.”  But don’t tell an editor that your therapist, your writing workshop, or the guy who makes your latte at Starbucks think your book is a flawless work of genius as it is.  It’s the editor who’s going to have to persuade the company to spend money buying the book, and publishing and advertising the book.  Anything you can do to make yourself look like someone she wants to work with is a good thing.

Being a brat, obviously, is not.



Madeleine Robins blogs here reliably on the 7th and 21st of the month, and occasionally at other times, just because she can. Her story “Abelard’s Kiss” appears in Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls, Book View Cafe’s inaugural e-anthology.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Ways to Trash Your Writing Career: An Intermittent Series — 6 Comments

  1. And the rise of the Social Media has given writers oh! so many more opportunities to trip up. Yes, the reviewer at the New York Times totally misunderstood what you were doing with your heroine. Do not tweet that she is an anal orifice! Go with a simple link to the review.

    Every couple of months the world of letters is diverted by a messy blowup between an author and a reviewer. Do not add to this entertainment! It may be tempting to think that tantrums and flamewars are PR that attracts readers. What they actually achieve is the sense, among editors and publishers, that you are more trouble than you are worth. There are authors who have made themselves such PITAs that they are essentially unpublishable. You do not want to add to their number.

  2. Being around Alan for many years, I’ve heard many stories about the old Twilight Zone days. I have my own story about that – after I went to Clarion, I was trying mightily to write, and if I’d had the kind of contact with other writers then that I have had in more recent years, I wouldn’t have done what I did – which was quit writing for 8 years after receiving a rejection letter from . . . Alan . . . whom I did not know at the time, of course. I completely misinterpreted his brief note meant as encouragement as “You are so awful you should never write again.” I still have it, and I look at it these days and marvel how wrong I was. Anyway, I definitely didn’t contact him back, complain, or tell anybody. I just quit. He told me that he very seldom did anything except send form rejection letters, as any type of communication was a big risk that he’d receive the type of letter your friend wrote to the editor, Mad. Or worse!

  3. It used to be that if you sold well enough you could get away with being Dificult. These days, unless you’re at the very, very top of the sales rank, it’s not a good idea–and if you are, you’d better hope your sales don’t tank.

    You don’t have to be a pushover. I left a publisher because the editor wanted to gut a book. Took it elsewhere, got more money for it, and it got a major award nomination. But I made sure not to blast EDITOR IS A STOOPID BLEEP all over the planet. You never know when you might end up having to work with Stoopid Bleep. Or SB becomes Major Honcho At Major House Offering Buckets Of Money.

    We’re writers. It’s our job to consider all the possibilities–in our careers as well as our writing.

  4. The other thing that I think deceives the uninitiate is that sometimes that flaming asshole persona is literally that — an act, a persona put on for the audience. Can Glen Beck really be as obnoxious as he appears? No, it is his shtick. And it has made him big money.
    So you might get to believing that you too, could be obnoxious and rake in big money. This is fine as long as you save your shtick for the AUDIENCE, and act like a professional and a human being back stage.

  5. Being a professional Bad Boy or Difficult Genius doesn’t work as well as it used to; writers have to deal with more people than they used to, and someone’s going to have a long, irritable memory of that time you peed on their leg to show how Narsty Cool you were. Professionalism is the new Professionalism.

  6. Indeed. Case in point: Harlan Ellison. Time was when everyone shook their head and shrugged and said, “Oh, it’s just Harlan being Harlan.” The tolerance levels for his shtick are much, much lower now.