Ways to Trash Your Writing Career: It’s Not the Crime, it’s the Cover-up

Everyone has bad days, or weeks.  Everyone agrees to things they can’t possibly manage, in the heat of excitement, or thinks something is doable and then runs hard up against the wall of time-management.  It happens to everyone: writers are not only not immune, we are especially prone to it, afraid to jinx a contract by saying “I can’t.”  And that fear can utterly destroy your working relationship with your editor, and by extension, your career at that house.


Step 1:  Tell them you have permissions for the quotes you want to use, or that you’re going to do Y to support the book once it’s out, or – this is a good one – tell them that of course you can make that deadline, no problem.

Step 2:  Don’t have the permissions in-hand by the time the manuscript goes to production.  Don’t do any of the support you promised, that the editor sold to the marketing department to get them to agree to other things.  Miss your deadline – by a week or a month or, as I’ve seen happen too many times – by a year or more.

Step 3:  Insist right up to the last minute and then the minute after the last that you’ve got them, they’re coming, that you’re arranging it, that the manuscript is almost done.  Keep claiming that you’ll follow-through to the point where, even if you did, it’s too late.  The manuscript has gone to press, the moment has passed, the drop-dead date has dropped and the book has to be moved in the schedule.

Think it doesn’t happen?  It does, every week, every year.  Because we can’t stand the thought of saying “I can’t.”

I spent fifteen years in the editorial chair, and the one thing I stressed, over and over again, to new writers and old pros, was: Let Me Know.  If you can’t do something, tell the people involved Right Away.   If you know a month ahead of time something’s gone pear-shaped and tell your editor – there’s time to work around it.  If you know a week ahead of time there’s a problem – there’s time to implement a quick-fix, or announce a change.

It seems basic, right?  But writers are so thrilled to have a contract, so aware of the risks and disasters lurking, the others hungry to get their chance – often we feel that we have to cover up any problems, or risk somehow ‘damaging’ our career.  We forget, sometimes, that our editor isn’t there just to kick our ass and request payments for us.  She’s also there to be our advocate, to interact with the other departments and smooth the path for this book, and the next book, and our career as a whole.  Piss her off?  Make her look like a fool, or an idiot, or an incompetent in the eyes of her co-workers, who were depending on her to get that material to them on time, based on your say-so?

You do that, and you lose your editor’s trust, and as a result you lose your advocate.  Lose your advocate?  You become just another cog in the machine.  And cogs are the first thing to get replaced with a shiny new cog, when the publishing machine is being serviced.


Laura Anne Gilman will be presenting the workshop “A Writer Looks at Editing: How to Help Your Editor Help You” at the Liberty States Fiction Writers Conference in March 2010










About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at https://www.patreon.com/LAGilman Learn more at www.lauraannegilman.net, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.


Ways to Trash Your Writing Career: It’s Not the Crime, it’s the Cover-up — 7 Comments

  1. I always emphasize to my writing class, that the publishing industry is not in the business of Art, or Creativity, or in fact even Great Fiction, at least not as a primary goal. A publisher is a BUSINESS first and foremost, and if it can’t meet its business goals everything else falls by the wayside.

  2. I’ve learnt these lesson in a different freelance context, but yeah.

    – Keep track of your progress – if you fall behind _you_ need to know, and you need to know as early as possible so you can change your process or make more time or renegotiate schedules.
    – You’re not going to work 100% all of the time – if you usually take 3-6 months for a draft, ask for six. If you finish in three, you can then let it sit, hand it in early, or start on the next item on your list. If you promise three and need six, nobody will be happy, and the pressure means your work will probably suffer, too.
    – Keep lines of communication open. (See excellent article above.) The people you’ll work with are human and will understand that you are, too, and will want to work with you – give them the chance to help you in time.
    – Don’t treat your career as a battlefield or it will become one. Well, that one is a personal choice, but I prefer to work from the premise that the people I deal with are decent human beings and take it from there. They’re not out to get me, not looking for excuses to fire me, and mutual back-scratching beats a cat fight any day.

  3. I always give the longest delay to my clients. Then if I finish the work early, it’s all good. Sometimes I miss out on a contract, but at least I’m not stressing about work all the time.

  4. Been there, had to catch the flak for that.

    I’ve given the same lecture to junior editorial staff when I’m explaining how to stay on decent terms with production: Do not create unnecessary trouble. Discuss your problems early and often. Figuring out who’s at fault is far less important than figuring out what we’re going to do about it. Say thanks for extraordinary work done on your behalf.

    I swear, you start feeling like The Godfather: “If you had come to me in the beginning, when you first had this problem …”

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