Best of the Blog: It’s Not the Crime, It’s the Cover-up

Laura Anne Gilman worked as an editor at a major publishing company before chucking the day job to go in for full time writing. That gives her special insight into writer shortcomings. This popular post from 2010 deals with saying you can do things that you won’t be able to deliver.

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.

Example:

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.

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