Tuesday, October 5, 2004

Dramatis Personae

I'd like to clarify something from the post about unskilled writers.

There are basically four groups in play here:

1. newbie writers whose prose is seriously flawed
2. sophisticated fans with a better command of grammar, puctuation, spelling, etc. than the newbie writers. Some are aspiring writers, some not.
3. actual working writers and editors
4. predatory publishers, editors, and agents

None of these groups (except maybe #4) are monolithic in behavior. Some newbies who don't know how a sentence is supposed to work will eventually learn what they need to know to succeed. Some will get discouraged and quit. Some, however, are the ones I'm mostly talking about. They're the ones who think their every word is golden, that their work should not be criticized or edited, but nurtured with effusive praise, and that any deviation from this dream is due to a conspiracy among major publishing companies to reject anyone with a Unique Artistic Vision, and/or to publish only work by Big Name Writers.  They want no part of the cycle of submissions, rejections and improved writing skills that are facts of life for nearly all working writers.

The sophisticated fans have probably done much more reading than the newbie writers. They know where to place a comma, when to start a new paragraph, and all that other correct English stuff the first group slept through or failed to understand in school. These fans have a good working knowledge of what's been written in the genre (I'm mostly talking about sf and fantasy fans here), and can therefore spot a cliche a mile away. They've probably done a lot of writing in blogs and journals,  newsgroups and comment screens. They may have contributed online reviews to IMDB and Amazon.
Having spent a lot of time online with like-minded people, some of these fans get cliquish and smug, mocking poor shmoes who don't meet their high standards.  Others, more tolerant, may be sympathetic to the shmoes in question.

The working writers and editors, by and large, have a good grasp of what it takes to get published. They often have an even better grasp of the novice mistakes that eliminate a manuscript from contention when a first reader pulls it from the slushpile. Not being cruel people, most of them want to educate the newbie writers so they can avoid common mistakes, both in the writing and in the decisions they make. For an editor, there's a certain amount of self-interest in this, because a well-written, well-formatted manuscript is much more pleasant to read than an awful one. The good one may even result in a successful book, one that makes back its advance, gets periodically reprinted for years or decades to come, and launches a new writer's career.  Isn't that what we all want from the process?  Even the established writers don't want the newbies to fail.  For one thing, they remember their own struggles with rejections and honing their writing, and want to help the next crop of writers understand what they're in for. For another, they know that Joe's first novel isn't going to cut into the sales of Steve's thirtieth novel.

The last group are the main villains of the piece. Knowing that newbie writers often don't understand why Tor or DAW doesn't want their 96 page manuscript that's one long paragraph (or 96 chapters!), they manipulate the newbies into paying them for services the newbies in most cases shouldn't be paying out of pocket. Although some freelance editors are legitimate, others take money to do a uselessly superficial, flawed edit. Agents who charge the writer to read manuscripts are generally considered predatory.  The legitimate agents are the ones who charge a commission on sales, plus expenses.

At the top of the predatory food chain are the vanity publishers, such as PublishAmerica and AuthorHouse. These companies lure in the newbies with supportive words about their unique artistic vision, false promises of editing, and assurance that the author's book will be available from Amazon and other major retailers.  They don't mention that Barnes & Noble is highly unlikely to stock the book, partly becase the quality of the writing is unlikely to be up to the standards of the major publishers. If the book is good enough to be worth buying, why is the writer paying someone to put it out, instead of being paid themselves?  So again, l
egitimate editors, established writers, and even some of the fans will try to educate the newbies, trying to save them from wasting their money on something that's unlikely to meet their high expectations.

For some projects, vanity publishing or self-publishing may be a reasonable choice. My own husband self-published books for years, and almost made a living at it. But for many of the newbies, especially the ones who haven't a clue how to write well, they're in for nothing but a fleecing from group #4, mockery and sympathy from group #2, and good but painful advice from group #3 - advice that many of them will ignore.  Check out, for example, the politeness and helpful advice addressed to Daniel Rice in most of the postings about his eBay manuscript in the Making Light blog. The blog's owner, editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden, was particularly gracious, until Rice responded to the kindness with anger, threats and abuse.  Even then she gave him a grace period to get over his understandably hurt feelings. His rhetoric only got nastier, however, so she "disemvoweled " him, removing the vowels from his comments on her blog.  (I should have defined that term before.  Sorry!) By and large, the writers, editors and fans who hang around Making Light treat newbie writers politely, sympathetically, and with unwanted honesty in their advice.


Making Light: A brief note on linguistic markers
Making Light: More linguistic markers
Making Light: Slushkiller
Making Light: On the Getting of Agents
Making Light: Looking at the Writers' Collective
LiveJournal: a somewhat cruel discussion of Circle's, with samples from the book.
Musings from Mâvarin: It's All Fun and Games Until Somebody Loses.

1 comment:

cneinhorn said...

Very interesting stuff.  I would think aspiring writers would know better NOT to pay anyone~~ agent or publisher in advance, but I noticed it being advised over and over again as a "be aware" kind of thing.