What is an UN-Professional Writer?

No matter what you may think of my product, I am a professional writer.  That means that I earn substantial income from the fruits of my keyboard, and I also use that keyboard to help make millions for the organizations with which I am associated (you did read that correctly).  I don’t make $50 here or there, I make enough that I might find my carbon footprint suffering from the proposed cap-and-trade legislation.  Do I mean I’ve got fiction-writing income like the UK’s richest woman, JK Rowling?  My gosh, of course not.  Do I mean like the Twilight Saga’s creator Stephenie Meyer?  Oh, my goodness – no way!

I’m probably never going to get up to the income level of today’s most successful English-language authors – like J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and Dan Brown.

Increasingly, I have been doing new freelance writing and art projects.  With each new project and person with whom I establish a relationship, I learn a lot more about professionalism, and about how to please the desired audience.

The biggest message I have right now for aspiring writers is:  think about your audience.  Think about the “end user” and purpose of the product you are creating.  Often, we talk about separating the creative and marketing steps of our work.  But they are inextricable in the sense that, when you are writing a piece of fiction (or nonfiction), and it is intended to be published to a paying audience (subscribers, book-buyers – all are readers), there has to be some “cachet” to it.  In other words: telling a good story.  The marketing part comes in when deciding which market/publication is the best “fit” for the story you have told.  With books, for example, publishers, whether they are new presses, or long-established divisions of one of the six large international publishing houses, have audiences, or markets, as you will, that they publish to.  Most publishing “arguments” and discussions revolve around failures to reach those audiences, and the causes for those failures.  That’s what e-publishing chitchats are about, that’s what chitchats about books or authors that didn’t perform are about, and that’s what “these midlist authors aren’t getting a chance to build an audience” chitchats are about.

I can turn every one of these author-centric complaints or chitchats around and say, “Show me several real examples of great books that were not eventually published, and did not eventually find its audience.” Of course, this is also “proving a negative,” and usually A Confederacy of Dunces is brought forth to illustrate this concept. According to a 2006 Slate article focusing on Dunces’ relationship to the film business, the book “. . . has always been shrouded in heartbreak. Its publication came 11 years after author John Kennedy Toole committed suicide at the age of 32, and it reached print only because of the singular persistence of his mother, who harassed novelist Walker Percy so intently that he finally agreed to read the lone ink-smudged manuscript in her possession.”

John Kennedy Toole didn’t stick around long enough to see what became of the book he wrote.  I honestly can’t remember the story well enough to remember if his death was connected with the failure of Dunces to immediately find a publisher or not.  But I rather think that it was, and this contributed to his mother’s persistence.

And this post isn’t about John Kennedy Toole, anyway.

It’s about one of the most idiotic posts about rejection I’ve ever seen, and the fact that this post and everything about it, defines “unprofessional” writer.  I don’t know the author’s name – his screen name is “Scoubidou” and his free Slate blog has a picture of a wolf.  He states he is “an amateur writer of crime – this crime of writing.”

OK, be your own judge about this.  The blog entry is all about how a rejection experience, something we professionals experience every day, seems to have really messed up his life.  The event occurred in 1986, and the blog entry is titled “F**k You, Alan Rodgers.”  Yes, that Alan – the one whose well-meant and professional rejection CARD made me “quit” writing back in 1985 – one year prior to the dreadful events described in the blog post.  Alan says I’ve drawn his attention to this post before.  Well, I hadn’t and haven’t, because I just saw it today, and it was so “inspirational,” I’m writing it up.  It’s crazy, all right, but it is textbook unprofessional, and I’m going to give this gentleman credit, he does state up front that he is an “amateur” writer.

So, here’s what Alan did.  The post is unclear, but the first-mentioned rejection can only be from Twilight Zone magazine (about which the author complains bitterly for the first part of his post, and calls former Twilight Zone Editor and author T.E.D. Klein “T.E.D. Bundy”).

“My worst young experience? I sent a story in to a horror magazine. The editor was a pretty well known toff named Alan Rodgers. It came back after a loooong time with this heart-pounder of a note: I really like this, unfortunately this magazine is folding. I’m moving over to a new magazine, and if you send it there, I’d really like to publish it.”

So, “Scoubidou” recalls that he sent the story with a reminder note to Night Cry, and got a form rejection in return, and this seriously ruined his life. 

I did quit writing for 8 years myself after Clarion (2 years, to be exact) – so at the same time, I got the same treatment as “Scoubidou” or similar.  But . . . I don’t blame Alan, and I didn’t get a note like that, either.  I happen to know from personal knowledge and experience that Alan meant that, and would never have sent that out if he hadn’t meant every word of every sentence.  And as far as form rejection letter from Night Cry goes, I am no Night Cry expert, but I know it wasn’t a one-person operation.  The likeliest “explanation” is that Alan didn’t see the second submission.  Someone else there did this dirty deed.  Or, failing that (because this “Scoubiedou” mentions pastrami or grease, etc.), “Scoubiedou’s” cover letter got separated from the manuscript (as happens) and Alan did see the manuscript but not the reminder cover letter, and the story didn’t work as well the second time around (as, sorry “Scoubiedou” – also happens).

I can share with “Scoubiedou” that Alan has always prided himself on making editorial decisions by reading a few sentences at most.  At least, decisions of the “rejection” kind.  You can often tell from titles, to be honest.  You can tell from a lot of things.

You can tell from the use of language, most of all.  Someone who has command of the language knows how to open, how to pace, how to do the basics!  These are the basics, “Scoubiedou,” and the rest of it isn’t craft, it is art!  It’s also taste, and common sense.

The rest of “Scoubiedou’s” absolutely bonkers post is about mostly how much he can hate on Twilight Zone and others, angst, and some moderate success with the gents markets of the day, Esquire, I think and good old Playboy.

I’m the sort of arrogant, vaguely madcap person who might, on a whim, decide to read 3-4 current Playboy stories (but aren’t they going out of business or close?) – but let’s say Esquire, because I did do that around Christmas, and pastiche up something that “feels” like what they’re publishing, send it to them, and publish it, because mimicry and emulation is one of my skills.  It’s not a skill I’m particularly proud of, nor do I think it’s something that has to do with stories I would approach in a more legitimate, less off-the-cuff fashion.  I realized I could do this, oh, gee whiz – about – 12-13 years ago or so.  Only later did I realize the real-world connection to “selling actual work to actual people so real readers will read it and like it.”

To “Scoubiedou,” it’s all one big ball of angst – he still hasn’t the slightest idea, in his extensive trashing of a magazine that’s been out of publication for a quarter of a century (Twilight Zone) that this, like every other magazine, had an editorial purpose, slant and readership.  Moreso, and different from, and a lot more complex than his trashy evaluation of it:  “The fiction in there was terrible. The large majority of the stories were rewrites of Stephen King stuff, backwards, forwards, anacrosstic [sic].”

Now, as far as writing novels, or even much short fiction – I mean short fiction that’s worth something – what YOU as a writer believe in is really what you should be sending out.  This callous “matching” and mimicking thing I mentioned – that’s not real writing, and that isn’t worth much money.  But if you can’t get your thinking process more in order than “Scoubiedou” did – no.  And truly, to his credit, he stated right up front, he was an “amateur writer of crime – this crime of writing.”  Writing – and selling – fiction (and nonfiction) professionally isn’t the same as the passion for marking down words that “Scoubiedou” describes very vividly.  It’s about communication, and it’s about audience.  It’s about understanding, or at least, if you are starting out, picturing that audience.  And it’s also about understanding simple things like the form rejection letter.  All that means is that one seeks another market.  And, creates enough – spending enough time in focused creation – to begin to create work that is something people will pay for.  In the case of fiction, that’s “good storytelling” that will satisfy the audience. Professional writing.

I’m still famous at Literary Rejections On Display, too.  Imagine that.  And of writers that make money, you’ll find few more supportive of genuine individual expression than me.  And few who have made fewer compromises in what they write than me.  There isn’t one of those ludicrous, “mimicry” stories that I have published that didn’t turn into something very different in the end – a real story.  If it did not – I didn’t publish it.  I put it aside and reminded myself not to play that type of nonproductive game. I have put many projects aside that I feel are not important or worthy – things that I don’t want my name on.  Money isn’t that important to me – not like that.  When both meet together: that is very much the ideal goal, and something that is a “win” for everyone involved:  author, editor, publisher, bookseller – and especially – the reader.

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What is an UN-Professional Writer? — 17 Comments

  1. If Scoubidou’s screed is anything to go by, I can see why he garnered so many rejections. He certainly conveys emotion, but there’s all sorts of connective tissue (I’m still not sure why, 3/4 of the way through his post, he suddenly feels vindicated by the internet; maybe because the reading was so unpleasant I began to skim).

    The rules are simple: Don’t be a brat. No one owes you a living, a publication, anything. It’s up to you to write something someone wants to publish. Sheesh.

  2. The fawning comments are priceless. I love the guy who tells “Scoub” to remember that all editors and readers are ten times dumber than he is. ‘Cause nothing will gain you a solid fanbase like the publicly expressed belief that your readers are all morons. Oy.

    But, really, reading “Scoubido’s” history of how he went about trying to get published, I’m not surprised that he got rejected. His slap-dash attitude towards how and what he sent out probably came across in his queries and ms’s. And he was 19/20. I’m 20, and lord knows I’m a very different (and I hope, better) writer than I was even a year ago, but I know that my youth and relative inexperience probably comes through in some of my work. If he was angry at the world in general and the publishing world in particular, I’ll bet that came across and just put editors/publishers off wanting to have to deal with the flaming angst.

  3. I’m glad you guys thought that was as special as I did! I agree that the rant points at some pretty clear reasons for rejection . . .

    Omega, keep writing!! I had never seen the free Slate blogs before, and when I realized what they were, not actually articles from Slate magazine, I was a little touched by those comments. Everybody needs friends . . .

  4. Ah yes, the entitlement of (mostly young, very often male, overwhelmingly white) writers…

    None of them seem to spot the problem with ‘this magazine/publisher is putting out total dreck, so I figured I had a chance’ which always strikes me as strange – if you dislike the product so much, why would you want to be published by them and work with them and have your name associated with them and point your friends and family to it?

    I understand that rejections make you feel rejected, and that they can hurt, but I think the people suffering most are those who don’t have the critical skills to understand why this story/novel gets bought (because it’s doing things right/is right for the market) and theirs doesn’t. I’m currently reading an author who writes in a well-defined subgenre. On the surface, all those books appear to be the same. When you look at them more closely, this one writes with much greater skill – it’s the difference between Tolkien and people who take Tolkien’s basic setup (elves, dwarfs, orcs, magic, battles) and believe ‘they’re just as good.’

  5. Green Knight . . . I’m now working on a new project and it is so funny you should mention the entitlement mentality of many who start out writing. I have often heard writers (yes, mostly male, mostly – gosh, I’m going to say nearly all white) say that their motivation for writing was reading a certain story, book or even publication and thinking “I could do better than that!”

    That is such an alien thought to me that I hadn’t fully considered what you say, which seems very true. It’s very Dunning-Kruger effect – in fact, there’s a whole website – http://www.dunningkruger.com

    Be that as it may, I have taken somewhat of a break from “real” sci fi, and one of my thoughts over the years was the the sort of intimate, character-oriented stories I wrote were antithetical to “big” stories – like, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or other big sci fi books.

    I suppose it is hardly a good commentary on me that I have done this now for 15 years, and it just now dawned on me that there was no earthly (or unearthly) reason for my characters to be in big adventures. And that those adventures wouldn’t be more “real” because the people in them – were REAL.

  6. Amy,
    I’ve had my own thoughts about the scale of books. I prefer characters with agenda, characters who make choices. Those who fight their daily lives to [metaphorically] survive, pay the bills, and find jobs/relationships/inner peace are not so different from those who face monstrous enemies: neither can decide to walk away and still live a happy and fulfilled life. The ones in the middle – who give up something in order to transcend their life, the stories that are about the first traces of a positive change – those are the ones I like best as writer and reader.

    Like you, I am boggled by people who decide to write because they think they can do better. The corollary is that they usually believe they *are* doing better because their critical skills remain underdeveloped, and they will – very Dunning-Krugeresque – believe themselves to be underappreciated because they are too good for (agents/editors/the public) rather than not good enough or simply too different. (A book that does not fulfill a reader’s expectations is a bad book for that reader. If they want a fun beach read and get Ulysses, they’ll hate it.) Not that I’m completely happy with the range of books traditional publishers publish, but one of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given was ‘ask not what they do wrong, ask what they do right’ because in order to get published, you have to do _something_ right.

  7. “Ah yes, the entitlement of (mostly young, very often male, overwhelmingly white) writers…”

    Ah yes, the violence of (mostly young, very often male, overwhelminly black) muggers…

    I’ve been mugged seven or eight times, each time by a PoC. I guess you’ve come across several entitled white writers. That doesn’t excuse either of our racist generalisations.

  8. Jolanta, I don’t think that stating that people are of a certain race and/or color is, in and of itself, racist. Green Knight was talking about a specific attitude and behavior pattern, and it matched my experience as well. I also interpreted it more as a gender-based statement, moreso than race or color.

    Also, I am sorry you have been mugged, especially so many times.

    I think there is a difference between stereotyping members of a certain race as violent criminals and muggers and observing a personality trait or pattern among certain writers. We were talking about writers who are arrogant and overestimate their abilities, sometimes to an extreme, like the author of the abusive blog post.

  9. The fact that the statement is also sexist does not detract from it’s racism.

    Also, I am sorry you have been mugged, especially so many times.

    Thanks, it’s just a feature of the area I live in, and the last two before it.

    I think there is a difference between stereotyping members of a certain race as violent criminals and muggers and observing a personality trait or pattern among certain writers.

    That may well be true, but you don’t say why.

    The other writer’s statement certainly did not ‘observ[e] a personality trait’ among certain writers*, it observed a pattern ‘among certain writers’, where the pattern was their race and gender and the ‘certain writers’ was ‘entitled writers’

    How is that less racist than observing a pattern among certain people where the pattern in their race and gender and the ‘certain people’ is ‘violent muggers’?

    Basically, to observe that a group of bad people (whether entitled or criminal) is primarily (in your experience) of one race or gender, is sexist or racist as there is no need to mention their race or gender unless you’re making a point about it, and it seems damn sure that the point is not “they’re white and male but that has nothing to do with it”.

    *This would be done by “White male writers are in mostly entitled and arrogant” It’s different to, less subtle and more racist than the original comment.

  10. Jolanta, if you are stating that I am racist because I made a comment based in race and gender, then fine – everyone has some racism, and some loyalty to one’s own gender. I don’t believe there are deep-set differences between people of different races of a qualitative nature, not just due to common sense and experience, but also due to a number of scientific studies, none of which has been able to identify any statistically significant differences. I do believe that men and women in general, are different. However, I also believe that the general differences in cognition and approach between genders aren’t as great as the differences between individuals, both in-gender and between genders.

    One doesn’t see this attitude as expressed above regarding rejections much in other types of writing (i.e. children’s books, nonfiction writing, romance writing or “general fiction”). It’s much more common among SF/F/H writers, and I think “Scoubiedou” was probably a horror writer. Literary Rejections on Display and the author who used to maintain a huge website and database on agents, obsessively cataloging who was turning him down and putting the correspondence on the internet were white males. I’ve observed other people making similar entitlement comments over the years, and when gender and race was able to be determined (i.e. by photograph, etc.), every single one I can think of, except for one recent example of a female Live Journaler who was making some pretty big mistakes slagging on those who were rejecting her, were white males.

    I wasn’t just commenting on a few things here and there, but an identifiable pattern.

    And as I said, we all do have some racism and gender bias, and I also continue to believe that making observations in and of itself is not racist. I didn’t make much commentary as to “cause” but one cause could be the observation made over the years in SF/F/H that females aren’t as willing to hang in there with multiple rejections (made by editors), and also that a larger number of white males want to write this type of fiction in comparison to females and non-white people.

    I have met very few female writers who have a similar attitude to “Scoubiedou” and very few nonwhite authors sharing these attitudes. I have encountered a small number – and that fits with what I observed.

  11. So you’ve observed within SF/F writers, a notoriously largely white and male group, that most of the entitled people were white and male, and you’re bringing that up… …why?

    If you’re not making a connection between the two facts, why bring it up?
    It’s disingenuous to suggest that you were simply making a factual observation – people tend not to simply make factual observations for no reason.

    Generalising about groups of people by their race or their gender is by default racist. If you have some non-racist reason for doing so then it can be recontextualised to be a non-racist statement.

    I’ve never seen anyone outside feminist/womanist forums that will admit that they’ve been racist – even for a second – so I don’t expect to achieve more than making my point here – but just think, not in the context of disagreeing with me, or the context of ‘Am I racist?’ or anything, just think “Why did I mention white men in that context? Was I suggesting a link between being a white male and being an entitled ass?” – Then you’ll know whether you were being racist or not.

    As for “are you a racist?” – I would hesitate to comment. I don’t know you, you seem perfectly nice, and I don’t believe in damning anyone as ‘a racist’ when they’re just ‘being racist’ – everyone slips from time to time, and no-one is perfectly un-racist, there’s no point labelling people as if that’s the only or most important thing about them.
    But if you want to know if you’re racist* just think about this – what sorts of things do you think are true about White Men?

    If you answered with anything beyond “They’re white and male” then you’re prejudiced against (or for) them to the extent that you feel comfortable generalising about them as a group – when we know that large groups of humans are heterogenous and can’t be generalised about, it is racist to generalise about people based on the colour of their skin.
    I would hope that you would never answer “X is true about Black Women” or “Y is true about American Indians” and you should apply the same to all other varied groups connected by only their ‘race’**

    *Yes, this is rhetorical, most people ‘know’ they’re not

    **Yes, race is not a scientifically valid concept – that’s another reason that any generalisation based on race is racist.

  12. p.s. If my word salad above is not enough :p

    “I wasn’t just commenting on a few things here and there, but an identifiable pattern.”

    True.

    Does that mean that you can identify any pattern without being racist? No matter the apparent implications?

    Would “I’ve noticed a pattern…
    …everyone who’s mugged me has been black
    …most illegal immigrants are Mexicans
    …these benefit cheats are mostly Eastern Europeans
    …these banks are mostly run by Jews”
    be acceptable?*

    If not (I assume you’re not an out and out racist :p ) then what’s the dividing line? When can you bring up a negative quality and then observe that those who hold it are mostly of a particular race?

    *Assuming of course, that like in your case, these are things that they’ve actually genuinely observed.

  13. Entitlement: when you equate ‘behaving like an idiot in public’ with ‘being a violent mugger’ and expect your argument to be taken seriously.

  14. Obtuse: Interpreting a comment saying that a race-specific generalisation is racist for the same reason as an unarguably racist generalisation, as a comment saying that they are equal.

  15. Um. I was talking about a behavior pattern common among the mostly white guys who like to write science fiction, fantasy and horror, yes.

    I said you could call me a racist. It’s OK to call me a racist. You can say I’m gender biased too. I am gender biased in favor of other female writers. Some overweight people also think I hate fat people. This isn’t true and the person whose feelings I inadvertently hurt knows that I respect and care about her. I hurt her feelings by writing about a fat Pugsley kid and his lazy, chubby Pugsley parents ruining the canoe ride at Disneyland, because they didn’t “get” they had to paddle themselves, and when told it wasn’t a motorized ride – they were the motors – they sat back and refused to paddle. So the young man who ran the ride and I were the paddlers, along with my very young daughter. I wrote this up for humor. It hurt this lady’s feelings and she had some very crazy friends, including one who continued to write lies about me for many months.

    But I am not against fat people. I am against lazy Pugsley people ruining rides at Disneyland – especially rides I’d waited over 2 decades to take!

  16. Well done, you’re a more insightful person than most that you can recognise that in yourself.

    Now stop it.

    Being racist isn’t cool, neither is being sexist. You see how you don’t have prejudice against fat people – that’s great, we appreciate it, I’m sure whichever groups you’re racist against, if more than the one already mentioned, would appreciate you dropping that too.

    And ‘green knight’, it was you who I was talking to originally, are you a big enough person to admit your prejudice? Or are you such a wonderfully pure person that you are able to make sweeping generalisations without being racist?