Friday, December 4, 2015

Ideas Like Bullets -- The Wake Up Call You Didn't Ask For

by Tommy Hancock

I have been accused of wearing many hats.  In theory, that may be true. In reality, I typically only wear one, although I do have a back up fedora and a ball cap or two for bad hair day rush trips out and about.  But, usually, that appellation is given to me because of the fact that within the Pulp/writing world, I do many things.  I am a writer.  I am an editor, not just for Pro Se Productions, my company, but others as well. I am also a publisher, a partner in the aforementioned Pro Se Productions. 

In each of those roles, and we’ll be lumping editor and publisher together this time around, I experience many things.  Ups and downs. Successes and failures and all manners of things in between.  There are moments of sheer happiness, sometimes bordering on a creative ecstasy of sorts. There are also periods, unfortunately lasting too long often to be considered moments, of depression, sadness, that ‘give up and walk away’ feeling.  What is funny is that although I know that both groups I’m addressing here have a collective narrow view of this, that only they feel this and the other side of the line doesn’t, the issues and feelings that writers and editors/publishers experience are often very similar, if not exactly the same.  They only differ in which side of the creative room the person happens to be standing on.

What I’m about to write is not intended to anger, incense, or push anyone away, although it might.  I made a commitment to myself when I renewed this blogging endeavor that I would use it in ways that would be useful to me, first and foremost, and hopefully to others as well.  What you’re about to read is useful to me in that it allows me to get things said that I feel need to be in a cumulative manner, all at once, and off my chest and out of the way.

It should also be noted, and remembered as You proceed through this, that I am guilty of everything I am about to spout against and attack.  I am no better than those of you who may do some of what is about to be listed and in part, this is an exercise to exorcise some of those things from me.

Is this a Pet Peeves post? Yes, in a sense.  But it’s also about some of the biggest stumbling blocks that writers and editors/publishers have in building relationships that can be mutually beneficial.  But, yeah, these are things that get under my skin and scratch like a burr buried deep beneath a newly broken mustang’s saddle.  And, again, I have done and even at times still find myself as the example of every one of them.

It must be noted, creatives of any brand are a passionate, emotional lot.  That happens to be the best thing about us. We invest ourselves fully and wholeheartedly in all we do, if we are doing it right, and we give a chunk of our very being into the work we produce.  That is writer, editor/publisher, sculptor, dancer, and the list goes on.  But, that also means that oftentimes feelings are worn on their sleeves and we sometimes look for any reason to be offended, or to think someone is being thought of better than us, or whatever thing we need to justify the sudden onset of creator doldrums we all go through.  To hopefully limit that before probably inciting full on episodes of it, let me say that I am beginning this discourse by focusing on writers, only because that is where the process between these two sides of the same coin begins.  Editors/Publishers would have nothing to do if it were not for writers, so writers get to go first, only for that reason.

A few thoughts for writers, first.  You are a big part of the reason that there is even a publishing industry to begin with.  The fact that people feel it is their job, destiny, and/or disease to string words together and get them put on paper, either the print or digital page, so they can be consumed by the ones, hundreds, or millions that might read them makes you a pretty important cog in the literature machine. 

But don’t forget, especially in the way the market has evolved today- You are a cog in a wonderfully colorful rainbow and storm producing machine.

There are many myths and illusions that surround the vocation of fiction writing, sort of like gathering clouds.  As both a writer who has been doing that a while and as a publisher, I spend time on a regular business dispelling some of those erroneous beliefs, what some would call hopeful aspirations.  First, writing as a whole will not make most of us who do it rich.  It will not, in fact, ever become a full time actual money earning vocation for the overwhelming majority of us.  It simply will not.  And for the few that do find their way into turning pennies a word into enough to feed family and self, that will likely not be all from writing what a writer wants to.  Technical writing, sewing together ad copy to advertise the latest in toddler storage furniture – Yep, have done that - , or ghost writing articles about the effect of global warming on the decline of the Aztec civilization or some such will be the bounty and bane of most writers who can say they write full time.  And, that works for some people, and that’s great.  But most writers have this very lofty ideal in their minds of one day sitting at their typewriter and getting to tell the stories they want to tell for hours and hours and actually being able to live on the proceeds from said activity.

Not a reality for most.  And it’s the concept that it is possible to reach that height that I think keeps many, many writers from ever getting close.  So many of us come into this with that goal in mind and it is all we see, it is the end result of that first short story or that novel, or for many, it will be what happen when they publish that first blog post.  And suddenly, nothing else matters. Or if other aspects of the process matter, then they are definitely colored by the singular desire to be the next Stephen King or Charlaine Harris or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or insert your famous author type here.  And it’s simply not how it works.

Let me state this plainly.  If you want to be the writer who only writes to live and who lives well from the writing you do, then focus on two things.  Focus on now, not later. And focus on the fact that your work is only beginning when a publisher accepts your book or when you hit ‘Approve Proof’ as a self publisher.  That is only you turning the knob, not the end of the process.

All writers wants to believe the work they submit to a publisher is the best work that not only they have ever done, but the best thing the publisher has ever seen.  Even if both of those points are true in any given instance, what usually happens next is a mistake. And that next step is the writer consciously or unconsciously sighs with relief and says, “Ah, now my work is done.  It is in the hands of someone else.”  And many times, once that happens, the writer divulges any responsibility for what happens next, for the final product, for the reactions of the readers, or at least the negative reactions.  And if there’s a single writer out there who reads this who says they have not even teased this thought, that they have not even had an inkling of this ‘I’ve done my job, anything bad that happens is someone else’s fault’ line of processing, then please don’t bother to tell me, because it’d end up in a discussion you wouldn’t care for.

As a writer, you must continue to work on the book or story you have submitted after it has gone off to the publisher.  You must be as invested in the process as You are allowed to be by all involved.  You must still live and breathe every word even if the tale is done.  You must be prepared to edit when the editor returns the tale, you must endeavor to tear the galley edit apart. And You must be ready to be the sole marketing voice for your work, regardless of who the Publisher is.  Good publishers will market, some of them having limitations, but they will market.  But if you’re a writer who believes you are not also an editor involved in the final processing of your book and that you’re not the best ad agency your work can have in this market, then you are spinning your wheels.   And if you believe all that AND expect to be on some bestseller list, then you, my friend, are living in a land of delusion.

Writing as a career has never been easy. Ask the Pulp writers whom many of us now know as famous authors.  Before they wrote the books on your shelves, many of them were buying rotten apples and stale breaded sandwiches with short stories.  But, as a writer, remember this as well.  No other aspect of this industry is easy, either.  For every writer who doesn’t feel like they’re getting paid what they’re worth, there is an artist rushing to meet a deadline that has forced them to put in more hours than they will ever see money for. There is an editor who cannot eat the copies he or she gets for reviewing your work or has to slide it in, even paying work, between one real life crisis and the next. And there’s a publisher who, unless they have already worked their asses off or work for one of the much larger companies, who is stringing together the company you have asked to publish you around their full time day job and probably whatever freelance stuff they can put together.  It’s a struggle and a fight and a passion for everyone involved.

And, remember, You’re not the only human in this process.  Everyone makes mistakes, everyone gets frustrated, everyone gets behind. Yes, sometimes You as a writer should put your foot down and stand up for your work in many circumstances.  But never forget that You are not asking God or Odin or apply Deity here to publish your work.  Things happen and if You don’t have the patience of Job, then writing is really probably not the thing for you.

I’m not telling you all this so you feel sympathetic to the other people in the trenches with You. But You need to be aware- There are other people in the trenches with You. And You do have a responsibility, if you ever want to be whatever it is you want to be as a writer, to be as involved as You can be and are needed to be in every step of your book’s life. And if you have a publisher that won’t let you be involved, one that doesn’t send galleys for your review, one that restricts your abilities to market, then I’m telling you right now, I know other publishers that are looking for new work to produce every single day.

Now, on to Editors and Publishers.  The diatribe I unleash upon this section of the wonderful thing we call the industry may be shorter, but no less pointed.  As a matter of fact, what I feel like is a major mistake most Editors and Publishers make is more important in some ways to the success of a work than anything a writer does.

A writer brings their work to a particular Publisher (Editor will just be an unspoken part of this title as they are often inexorably linked) because that writer wants to.  The exact specifics may vary- Maybe the Publisher offers great money, maybe the Publisher produces work similar to the Writer’s output, maybe the Writer’s heard great things, or maybe the Writer is just throwing stories against the wall to see what sticks- but the bottom line is a Publisher gets a story because a writer sends it.  And so many Publishers, once they get a story, suddenly forget that. They no longer understand that they have that work in their hands, not because of anything they’ve necessarily actively done aimed at that writer, but because that writer chose to send them something that is very dear and precious to that creator.

Yes, I said it.  Writers are, for many of them, in essence sending you a child when they send you a story or a novel.  They are trusting You not only to take care of that baby of theirs, but to groom it and trim it, and feed it, and make it into a being, an almost living, breathing thing that can stand on its own when it finally hits the real world.  It is not product, though it is.  It is not a widget, even if You of course have to sometimes consider it such.  It is not simply written pages converting into dollar bills, though that is one of Your end goals, and a valid one at that.  It is a part of the writer, even if that author is a hack as I sometimes am and simply writes what he or she is told to write, maybe a small piece, but still a part of that writer that now sits in your inbox waiting for You to work on it.  You should treat it as such. And no, that doesn’t mean that you have to coddle the writer, hold his or her hand, do exactly as they want you to.

It means you have to work on it.  And not just enough to get it out the door, but really work on it.  You have to make every effort, do everything within your power to make sure the story or book you have is the best it can possibly be before a reader every puts down money for it.  That is in the editing process, the development of the cover, in working with the writer, in every way.  You have to take every single book you get, every word that you may one day print, and do every damned thing within your power to make sure it’s as good as it gets when it is finally in the wild.

And You will screw up.  And at times, You will fail.  It happens. There’s not a book I have read in the last twenty years that didn’t have at least even a tiny issue.  A missed word, a typo, a horrible cover, print too small, something that I can look at and see that the Publisher should have done differently or better.  And remember, I am a publisher and it happens with my own books.  But, the trick is this.  When that happens, don’t say “Well, it happens to everyone.  Things get by us all” even though that’s true.  It is your responsibility and your choice- Remember, no one forced You to become a Publisher- to look at that particular error or issue and not only do every damned thing you can to make sure it doesn’t happen again, but, if possible, to fix it and make it right for all involved.  You have set yourself up as the steward of a story to be told, to be shared.  That stewardship doesn’t necessarily end after the book is published.  Not only is there marketing, but with the way publishing is done today, there are chances to correct mistakes and make things right that weren’t available in the past.  And it is your job to always do what You can to make sure what You produce for any writer is as good as it can be.  And sometimes that means swallowing pride and correcting mistakes…or, when you can’t, falling on your sword, dying on that hill, and admitting the mistakes that were made and where they fall.

And that is where this entanglement of calling the kettle black and toeing lines both comes together and finds its end.  Publishing, especially in the market as it exists today, is a team effort. Yeah, I know how many of you cringed when I said that, especially You self publishing types, but it’s still true, even in that instance.  And Self Publishers, You have the unique situation of having to be cognizant of when You’re being too possessive as a writer of your material and when You’re blaming faults of the final product on other people who were on your team instead of taking your share of the responsibility as Publisher.   But, it is all about working together.  All about having a similar goal and, to be honest, the only goal that matters in the end.

You want to make books and stories people read.  So check your egos at the door, accept your responsibilities, and, if need be, get your figurative head out of your figurative ass and go forth and create.  I need more to read.