A rant about stupid and thankless writers

Yesterday, I took half of the day and did something that I as Editor-in-Chief don’t normally do. I responded to several rejected submissions.

But I even went above and beyond writing a rejection letter. I phoned the authors personally and explained why I was turning down their manuscript. Why would I do such a thing you might ask? Well, I didn’t do it for every manuscript. In fact, I only called four writers that had turned in their requested full manuscripts to give them the bad news, allotting 45 minutes to an hour for each call.

These four manuscripts had made their way up to me for final approval before signing them on, and after reading each one in full I stopped the upward trend of readers and turned them down because of various reasons. But—and there’s a big but here—I made those personal phone calls because I saw a lot of potential in those four manuscripts, they just weren’t quite up to par yet, and I wanted to relay my high opinion to each of them while discussing some points on what doesn’t work in the story and suggest several ways in which to fix them so that they could possibly resubmit.

So why am I pissed?

Okay, as I’ve said before, editors are not gods. We (or at least I) don’t expect potential writers to bow down before us and grovel at our feet, or to hang onto every word we say as if they were manna from heaven. But, editors for the most part don’t have the time—or give a shit enough—to dedicate close to an hour of their already hectic and over-scheduled day to discuss with an author why they are not accepting their book instead of signing a simple letter and having one of their lackeys lick and stamp the envelope.

So, to put it plain and simple, when an editor from any house—be it a magazine, or a small or large publisher—calls to offer advice despite the rejection in order to better yourself and your manuscript, don’t make yourself look like an asshole and just listen.

Two of the writers I talked to were very appreciative, and the constructive discussion was rewarding on both ends; I was able to relay my thoughts on their manuscripts and describe exactly how their manuscript was failing and what it was I was looking for, and the writers were able to ask me questions to clarify my points or get tips on how to accomplish those rewrites. The third writer was stuck on my third sentence of “liked it and saw potential, but it’s not ready as it is so I’m going to have to say no,” and the conversation went in circles and after ten minutes I pretty much gave a “have a good afternoon” and hung up.

The fourth potential novelist brought my carefully concealed claws out to full length. Now, normally I consider myself a very level-headed and poised character, and am able to keep my cool in most situations. But sometimes—and this is another grain of evidence that editors are in deed, human—there are some people that just get…under…your…skin. Not only did the wannabe author cut me off at every sentence, he actually vehemently argued with me that he had hired a freelance editor to work on his book, and that it wasn’t his fault his book was lacking in all of the areas I was trying to fix with him.

… Now, if you were to hire a painter to paint your house, but you give him a god-awful shade of pink bucket of paint and tell him to be creative, can you really blame the painter for your house looking like shit?

No, because it’s your house, and it’s your damn book. So take a little pride and responsibility in the writing (and editing) of it and don’t try to shove someone else under the bus to make yourself look better. It doesn’t help; because it makes you look like an ass.

The writer then went on to argue with me that I apparently didn’t know what I was talking about, because this was not his first book written and, since he’s been published by another small press he knew what was publishable or not, and I was being “petty and overly-picky” in my critique. At that point I lost my cool a bit, because with those words I realized I’d just wasted 35 minutes of my time on a bratty, self-indulged author whom I wouldn’t want to work with anyway, and said a few things that elucidated my status as an editor and his as a half-witted reject. Admittedly, it was unprofessional, and now I feel just a smidgen of regret—not at how the writer might feel, but the fact that I had allowed him to rub me so.

The conversation abruptly ended when he asked me once again whether “I was sure I hadn’t made a mistake, and was positive that this was not a joke and I was not taking his book.” I’d sat on the phone silent for a few seconds thinking are you shitting me? Before simply saying “no.”

“Well, then,” I was answered in a lofty tone. “It seems you just wasted nearly an hour of my time when I could have spent two minutes reading a letter.”

Then the fucker hung up on me.

If I hadn’t been so pissed the situation would almost be laughable—the writer solidifying the bitchy, spoiled writer archetype that editors so hate. But I was pissed, and I still haven’t laughed, because I stewed all evening on how I lost two hours on two ignorant writers who I had sincerely tried to help when I have a slew of other potential authors out there who would jump at the opportunity to speak directly with the editor of a house instead of getting another depressing form letter.

So, while writing is not exactly a team sport, to all you egomaniacal writers out there, quit being assholes by ruing good things for others just because someone stuck a push-pin into your over-inflated pride.

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Is is ok to ask for help in regards to the competition?

I opened an email today marked “query,” and was expecting to read an author’s pitch on their book. Well, turned out I was mistaken. Very much so, actually.
This letter had nothing to do with a query to our house, but rather an author asking for advice on submitting to another publisher.

…the letter is provided below:

Hello,

I would be very grateful if you could answer a question that may (or may not be) stupid…

I recently won a place in a new writing anthology that is going to be published early next year and distributed among agents and publishers. Two editors from the judging panel (both of whom represent internationally well-known and respected publishers) have now asked to see the full manuscript. Is it necessary to send them a synopsis with the submission? (Although the manuscript is now complete and the initial edits now done, I have not yet written a synopsis. [What can I say? I work backwards].) I am anxious to send it to them while they can still remember their enthusiasm (and my name!) but don’t want to commit a publishing faux pas by not including the basic requirements. Although I am familiar with what I should do when trying to gain a publisher’s interest, I am not at all knowledgeable as to what to do when it comes unsolicited!

Also, I do not have an agent. The first editor who called said ‘Good luck with choosing your representation’ as if it was a given I would be offered it. I am not so confident and so am waiting to see what happens before making any further attempts to get an agent – I’m being realistic aren’t I? The second publisher has already said she’d like me to come in and ‘meet the team’ soon after I send my m/s in. Is this unusual? I would have thought she’d like to make sure the rest of the manuscript didn’t make her want to throw it in the bin before talking about meetings…it’s all exciting of course but does make me wonder how far I’ve got to fall once they’ve read the full text…Anyway, any advice or comments would be very gratefully received.

Many thanks,

Hmm…well….

Not really sure what to say to that. If it had been comment posted on the blog, then perhaps I might be a little more open to respond. But seeing as this was sent to our submissions, marked as a novel query, and doesn’t really give any indication that this writer is interested in “publishers in general” but rather in a particular two, I’m not sure where to go with this.

First off, I would like to say thank you for thinking of our press; it makes us feel important, and well…smart, that someone would come to us for advice.

Second, I’d like to chastise any writer who ever does this or has thought of doing this. It’s like going to Macy’s and saying “I’m not going to buy anything from your store, but I’d like to know if you could measure me and help me gather gift ideas from this JC Penny brochure so that while I’m shopping there I spend less time in the crowded lines….” I’ll tell you right now that Macy’s clerk will tell you to take a hike.

If you want to ask a question in general about publishing or editors, as far as preferences, industry standards, etc., then go right ahead and post on an editor/publisher blog, or email their information department. But don’t – and I mean a strong don’t – email an editor, to ask about submitting your story to another particular editor so that you don’t have to ask your target editor in order to save face or seem more professional/knowledgable, etc. It’s a waste of the first editor’s – and in this case, my – time and efforts.

But just because it is the holiday season (god, I almost choked on that one) and I’m in a giving mood, I’ll do a short and clipped answer to the question.

1. Always include a full cover letter, synopsis, and any other front material when submitting a manuscript for the first time. It helps refresh the editor’s memory, and you’re better off going overboard then sinking.

2. “Good luck with finding representation” does NOT mean it’s a given you’ve been offered it. That is a polite way of saying “find an agent elsewhere, we’re not taking you on.”

3. I don’t know of any editor or agent that would invite an off-the-street writer to come in to the office and “meet the team.” Personally, I – and, probably many other editors – hate dealing with new writers face to face right off the bat and would prefer it to be completely by email or phone until a relationsip is made. Especially since the editor has not even seen the full manuscript – it does seem a little odd, and it’s possible this agent isn’t very credible, or you just wrote a ****ing damn good anthology piece. Sorry, but chances are I’d be skeptical of the agent. Even a novel with an excellent begining has been rejected after the editor reaches chapter four, and the majority of publishers will not commit to anything until they’ve gotten the full submission packet.

Hope that nicely sums everything up….

Blah blah blah, get a life

Some writers (myself included) approach dialogue with the ill-advised notion that, “Oh, I’m smart, so my characters should all sound like I do and it will be all good.”Yeah … well, your characters are going to sound like assholes. Seriously, no one wants to hear a writer’s voice when they think of what their characters sound like. Haven’t you ever heard a writer talk? Not the nicest thing to listen to. I mean, it’s bad enough that they’re megalomaniac enough to write a hundred and fifty-plus pages worth of a story that they feel is a priority, now they want you to wallow about in words that they would spew out like so much regurgitated knowledge?Which is where we get to the subject of bad, self-indulgent dialogue in literature. Not dialogue that services the plot – which is problematic but not something one would call bad. No, we’re talking about bad dialogue. Post-Tarantino, pop-culture-pornography in which the writer yammers through his or her (usually his) characters, which are usually based on his or her masturbatory fantasy alter-ego (again, usually his). Some writers can get away with it, but that usually only happens if the writer has either an inspired plot or writes from a first-person perspective that playfully implies the inner workings of a megalomaniac while still retaining enough interest in what is happening. Not everyone can be Nick Hornby.Dialogue is supposed to build character rather than the writer’s ego. For example, here is an example of bad self-indulgent dialogue:Jarvis: You’re nuttier than Conker’s turds.Wilford: Well, you’re lamer than the finishing moves in MK.Jarvis: Good comeback, noob.Wilford: L-O-L.This dialogue tells the reader that a) they play too many video games, b) they’ve never heard a real conversation (between two real people, anyway) in their life and c) they haven’t ever felt a woman’s touch.Here’s what concise, relevant dialogue sounds like when used correctly:Jarvis: Seriously, when you write dialogue like that, it sounds as if you’re just doing it to satiate some kind of unfulfilled promise to yourself. Like, you feel as if you’ve failed miserably in life so you need to succeed in the fantasy world you’ve created … with countless grammatical errors and misplaced punctuation marks.Wilford: You shut up! This is art! This is how I express myself!Jarvis: I know this is how you express yourself. As in, right now, you’re expressing yourself in a way that shows how lyrically impotent you are when it comes to creating spoken words that develop character. Stop watching movies, stop using TV shows as a reference and read a book that came before the Harry Potter craze. Indulge yourself in the world rather than yourself.Wilford: (sobbing) I’ve never felt a woman’s touch! Might I add that this is coming from someone who YouTubes all day when not on Myspace or Facebook.

Keeping track of submissions

Why is it important? For several reasons.

1. It helps you to keep track of what you sent out
2. It provides you a timeline in which to expect a response from publishers
3. A timeline that also gives you a date when to start resubmitting your work (if rejected or no response)
4. It saves you from embarrasing conversations with editors

…why the last point? Well, because I’m a little annoyed. I received a forwarded email from one of my editors today, an email response they’d received from a rejection they’d sent.

Dear Casey Ishitani,

I would like to thank you for looking at my query letter. I did not send a manuscript and for future reference if you must be critical and selective and please don’t take this the wrong way or personal but in order to be successful you must be correct and pay attention to detail. You stated that you read the first few pages in which I did not send but one so please in the future respond accurately and professionally, thank you.

Well, the email was forwarded to me, and I went back through our records so that I could clear this matter up. Like I’ve said before in previous posts, all of our editors keep track of their in and outgoing responses and submissions, so it wasn’t hard for me to find. I did find this particular writer’s submission, along with his submission packet – and yes, his manuscript. I also went back and read my editor’s rejection letter to our friend, and saw that it had been rejected because the “plot did not interest us, and we were not hooked by the first few pages of the manuscript.”

I then replied to his email, as well as attached his manuscript for reference:

Mr. ________,

Thank you for your response, and for thinking of Leucrota Press.

According to our records, along with your query you sent the prologue and first two pages of chapter one – the first 15 pages of your
manuscript, _____________, for us to review. We did indeed read the first few of these pages, as we make sure to read each and every one of our submissions. This is not to point out a mistake on either party, just to reassure you that we did give your manuscript the proper attention that it deserved.

I apologize if you felt otherwise, and wish you the best in your publishing future.

Thank you,

Hmm. So, yes, I was a little annoyed. This just goes to show how important it is to keep track of all your submissions; when you sent it, what you sent, and to whom you sent it to. This way you don’t look like an ass…

Author blacklist?

I got an interesting question posted on our Editor Chat page, wanting to know about a very feared idea:

Hey is there really something known as a blacklist for writers?
I’ve heard of it, but get different feelings from different people on the subject…

Many writers have heard of a universal “black list” that will damn an author forever if their names ends up on it. That editors from publishing houses send out mass emails to every other house around the country, warning others about a particular writer or agent, telling them how terrible and annoying the person is, and that every editor in their right mind will avoid them at all costs…

To make a long story short: no. There is no such thing as a universal author blacklist. Editors do not put up flyers with pain in the ass writers to ruin their future career, and do not take time out of their already busier than hell days to email other editors at other houses…we don’t have time, and really, we don’t care enough about such a thorn-in-our-side-writer to do so. We have other writers to deal with, too many submissions to shift through, and too much general crap on our minds to give that writer a second thought.

Now, not to say that there isn’t a “softer” version of a piss-list in each publishing house. What do I mean by this? Well, it means getting a threatening email from a writer after rejecting their manuscript, and then having the same writer submit another manuscript two weeks later.

It’s not so much a “black list” that houses keep, but we do remember. And at Leucrota Press, each editor keeps a spreadsheet of submissions read, just to keep track for the month. And yes, if there is a psycho writer out there, I – and our other editors – will send an in office memo about it. But aside from not putting much effort out to read his manuscript before returning it, we didn’t do anything else to the guy.

So don’t worry about. But at the same time, use common sense. Don’t be pissy or overly sarcastic and not expect a little reaction back. As long as you’re professional, you’re fine.

Hope this helps to clarify.

Demonizing minorities in literature – a rant

I swear, if receive one more submission with an “evil Native American demon” as the hateful antagonist, I am going to flip. Go postal. Whatever the hell you want to call it. I am going to do it.

Why? Besides the fact that it isn’t creative, overdone, poorly done, and completely unentertaining? Because it’s annoying as hell when a writer can’t think up their own God-forsaken demonic deity, one that readers will fear and hate and can be ultimately destroyed, and so then eventually turns to Native Americans (NA from now on).

**** that.

These submissions would be helpful if I was putting together a “Worlds Worst Collection of Native American Stories” anthology. Since I’m not, they’re just more pieces of paper to wipe the smeared sociopolitical placations off of my Cherokee-Hawaiian ass.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against having a NA as an antagonist, or as an evil deity, as long as it is well researched, plays an integral role in the plot, and can be justified as to why that deity must be used. Hell, we have one excellently written short story coming up in Abaculus 2007 by author Willis Couvillier, and a novel coming out next spring by two southern California writers that has both “good” and “bad” NA’s and NA deities.

So what’s the difference? The simplest one, is knowledge. Both of the above mentioned works have been carefully researched, the authors knew what they were talking about, and were careful on how they executed the story. In the first, there is a soul-stealing deity that wants the “collective” persona of the NA’ to live on, the second has a mixed-breed NA who is a grave robber to his own people, and is eventually overcome by a group of modern day archaeologists and rangers with the help of a time-shifting shaman.

Both stories work, both are justified. Both were accepted by Leucrota Press.

What is not acceptable, is when there is no justification, and there is no plausible reason at all for the demon to be NA other than the fact the writer was lazy. It’s an easy set up – story in the Midwest or the plains, someone gets lost, sheep are stolen, and all of a sudden it’s a NA demon come to destroy the town out of retribution for past grievances. Or, in another submission I received this week (yes, I received nine similar submissions so far this week) that didn’t have any revenge or restitution involved – the demon was just an evil demon for the hell of it, and needed to be destroyed.

It’s a cop out. It’s easy – it’s easy to put the blame or cast an evil eye on something that is already done, or already has bad stigmas. And in this I’m not just talking about NA’s, either; Mexio’s Dia de los Muertos, Hawaiian Ku, the Aztec sacrifices, Egyptian rulers and deities, bigfoot…

…this is not a rant because of my race, nor of the ethnicities of my editors or readers. It is a rant because I am tired of writers who are unable to step back and look at the bigger picture, or able to actually be a writer and come up with something creative and unique. Using another ethnicity’s past, practices, culture, or deities just because “it’s already made” is nothing but a writer being lackadaisical, ignorant, and thoughtless – not only to that particular ethnicity, but to the editors forced to read their crap.

Use a NA, or any other deity, as your antagonist. Go ahead, but do it with class, and ****ing try to come up with your own shit.

Why some art sucks: Part 1

Seriously, will someone pick up a newspaper? Oh wait, the news sucks. Well, looks like we’re left to pool our resources — the intellectual equivalent of handball, if you will. Time to turn on the television.

My sister asked me if I watched the MTV VMA’s and I asked her if any of my favorite bands were on. You know … good music. She said no and I went back to reading about how terrible the world really is in my newspapers. Britney Spears parading her cellulite on screen while lip-synching to music processed in a computer somehow doesn’t seem as important as a country embroiled in a war or my health declining because I’m unable to receive health care. Lo and behold, there Britney is caught mid-undulation – like a vertical elephant seal – with the writer seemingly concerned about the feelings of a woman who would not wipe the sweat from her spoiled brow to quench the thirst of a dying pauper. This is news.

Well, that is why I think some art sucks. When a professional newspaper writes a column about a glorified brat, when a walking anachronism like OJ Simpson can slither his way back into the limelight and a college newspaper fails to send an experienced reporter to interview a presidential candidate because it isn’t as much of a priority as covering football practice for a college team that isn’t in the Top 10, that is when you can tell that the suck tsunami of modern art will drown out all that is creative and awe-inspiring for mediocrity and irrelevance to reign as king because no one really cares anyway.

The news and modern events are one of the many roots of art. And if the media won’t shed light onto things that matter – or things that should matter but are largely ignored, like lead-flavored toys – then it is failing in its duty and should be called out by a community that is in desperate need of information.

Now, I’m not blaming the news for making artists terrible. We have Norman Rockwell, The Beatles, South Park and several well-known writers for that – self-glorifying, overly-defensive, status-quo-upholding crap that they are. But, they do make it easier for mediocre art to be looked at as “great” and great art to be looked at as “elitist” or “pretentious.”

I heard one person say that Hemingway is too complex for them. Too complex? This is every Hemingway novel: surly American guy goes to Europe/Africa, gets drunk, falls in love, learns to hate women and eventually comes to the conclusion that life sucks. If he didn’t have talent, he’d be the godfather of emo.

When your culture can’t grasp Hemingway, then it indicates a severe deficit in creative cultural acceptance. How can Americans comprehend Vonnegut when they can’t even comprehend where their state is on a map? The news, by not challenging America, is putting the future generation of artists in a water-treading race in which every participant but the fattest, most bloated and full of hot air contestant will drown by sheer effort to stay afloat.

Seriously, when someone who reads books and acknowledges information is looked upon as an intellectual, snobbery is the least of insults one can hurl at the masses.