Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Authors as Isolated Crazy People (Voice of the Undead Countdown Minus 33)

With Alex Van Helsing: Voice of the Undead coming out on July 26, I'm counting down 60 cool vampire things. Today:
Sometimes Authors are Crazy
Skyla Dawn Cameron, who blogs from the perspective of both a writer and an editor, tweeted yesterday that she was amazed that writers can do profoundly stupid things, such as (this happened yesterday) pasting a query letter into the comments section of an editor's blog. She linked to a post she wrote a few months ago urging writers to avoid what she called "Only Author Syndrome." She's not alone-- if you traverse the blogs of editors and agents you'll find a lot of frustrated venting. Some of it, like Cameron's, tries to get an instructive point across with humor, while many (I won't link here, mainly because I don't feel like looking them up) tend towards a kind of in-the-know derision: let me read to you from the idiotic query I got today. How I suffer to read such things. Sharing them with you on my blog is the very savior of my sanity.
But what are we talking about? Cameron does a good job of listing a few examples:
I once received the same inquiry from the same author six times in the span of twelve hours.

I've been bombarded with the same email several times in one day from the same people for something "urgent" that is, in no way, urgent...and wouldn't be urgent* for another four months, if that.

I've had people go through multiple rounds of editing and proofing screaming after the book is released because they've decided to change something in the book and want it re-edited and re-released. Right. Now.

I was asked once a week (and sometimes twice) for a month and a half by a slush author if we had decided on her book yet.

So, let me say from the first that I'm not guilty of these things, at least not in the last fifteen years or so; I don't remember much about the first couple of books. So when I take a blog post to explain what's going on, I'm trying to carve out a space for compassion for writers I regard as-- I don't know, siblings, if not spiritual children. I want to explain to the editors and agents why writers are so crazy-making. Here are a few thoughts; there may be more.

Writers are like temporarily insane boyfriends/ girlfriends. Remember how in college you'd have a friend who would be completely, utterly normal, but then after a break-up or something, they were still normal, except that somehow regarding this particular person they were crazy? They'd start showing up at such-and-such a bar because that was the bar their ex would go to, so maybe they could run into them, and they'd maybe stand outside the bar and wait or wander by the ex's workplace? Stalkery, right? Yes. And yet, I have watched the greatest minds of my generation slip into stalkerdom, and then back out again after the fever passes. And afterwards you could ask: Janet! What for you hang around Brad's workplace until 1 in the morning? She'd have no idea. A year later she would say, I remember being compelled to. I remember it made so much sense, and now I have no memory of why. This is the stalker scenario, and editors see it when they get the behavior that seems kind of creepy-- the weird friendly phone calls, the query put in the blog comment box, or God forbid showing up at the editor's office.

It's all about putting yourself in the other person's place. The writer thinks they're being a go-getter, taking charge of their own destiny. The editor doesn't know the writer from Adam and doesn't know if they're dangerous, so they react (reasonably) with icky suspicion.

Writers: to avoid this stuff, you have to look at everything you do and ask, "how will the editor as a person see this?" Editors, just so you know, they mean well.

Here's another one:

Only Author Syndrome Proper. This is what Cameron really gets bugged about and with good reason. These behaviors involve writers haranguing PR for more resources, bugging editors for a better deadline, a better cover, another re-write, etc. By "only author syndrome," Cameron is saying that these writers are acting like they're not used to having to share resources (editors). There's something to this, but it's uglier and sadder, really.

Cameron points out that writers need to realize that the editors are way overworked. They don't have time to deal with every writer demanding special attention. I think she's right that no writer has an idea of how busy an editor is. But here's where the editor and the writer are both getting screwed by circumstance.
Every piece of advice a new writer gets today says that the writer needs to be prepared to take the shepherding of their work into their own hands. Publishers often complain that writers don't take enough responsibility for their own marketing. Unfortunately, though, as marketing tasks shift to the writer as a member of the marketing team, no infrastructure to support this new integration has taken place. The writer is expected now to do PR and marketing and advertising, but you know what that makes this? A job. And on my other job in marketing, I actually do call my co-workers constantly: what were our sales today? Did Janet get that editorial turned in? Has someone answered that question? Can we have a quick call at two to go over the stuff for next week? That's what professional work is like. It's not surprising to me that writers treat books like work. They want answers yesterday because they have been given new responsibilities.

And yet. And yet. It's not working. Editors feel attacked and the writers feel like however much work they do, they can't win.

A lot of this would be solved, I believe, with the institution of some practices from the software industry: regular meetings on every project with all timelines shared with the author. Lots of answers simply written down and shared to the author. Maybe even an online project management system so that, instead of calling the editor, the author could see: ah, that manuscript was entered into the system on Date A, and is still waiting to be read. There is no news here. DO NOT CALL. Editors are suffering because they drew the short end of the stick. They are the front line, and also, they still have to be editors.

There's one more phenomenon I wanted to mention that was first observed by Greg Scott, a friend of mine who draws for a living:
In Your Head Syndrome.
"The thing to know," Greg said, "is that artists spend all day alone in their studios and much of that time they're engaged in long conversations in their heads with people they intend to talk to later. They've been hashing and rehashing this stuff all day. By the time they talk to you, they feel like they've already had this conversation-- why aren't you caught up? You spend all day in your head. It makes you crazy."

It does; it makes you crazy. I know it makes no sense, but that writer is basically dying to know if you've thought about her proposal, and it's making her crazy. I truly regret that she's gone nuts, but if you sat her down (and who has the time?) she would get it. She needs to figure that out for herself.

Anyway, I write this not to excuse bad author behavior, but to attempt an honest answer as to why writers do inexplicable and obviously stupid things.


  1. I think a good portion of the time you're absolutely right--instead of writing their next book (which is what I always tell people to be doing), many new-ish authors in particular are so eager to be doing everything right while going through the publication process so they can hit the ground running when the book comes out that they don't realize they've reached the point where they are obsessing. I try really hard to be patient in those circumstances and be as tolerant of the crazy as possible.

    There are, though, a couple--literally, I can name maybe three total--who are either oblivious of the fact that they're not the publisher's only author, or just don't care. Had to explain to someone the other day that, you know, we don't work weekends, so you can't ask for something Friday and expect we have everything done by Monday when you know it's going to take a few days--and every interaction with this person has gone along the "me me me" lines. But of course there are people like that everywhere--it just seems that when you combine it with an artist personality, the crazy is amplified.

    This is why we're all alcoholics.

    Great post! And yes, I totally agree with "In Your Head Syndrome." I do that all the time LOL.

  2. Thank you for posting, Skyla! And I agree. There are bad, bad apples everywhere. Very probably even if we set them down and explained why this is bad behavior, they would still ignore us. It's a shame because it makes it harder for the rest of us.