101 — with Lee Thomas

As part of my ongoing 101 section for newer writers, I’ve asked a handful of colleagues—and mentors of my own—to participate in the name of preventing mistakes and paying knowledge forward. I asked them all the same question… This edition is brought to you by Lee Thomas, author of The Dust of Wonderland, The German, and many more. And now, Lee…

*****

(The use of the word bitch in this article refers to its use as prison slang and is in no way specific to or related to gender or sexual orientation, and no such interpretation should be made.)

My good friend Kelli asked me to guest blog, and naturally I was glad to do it because she da rock, but the prompt she gave me proved a bit of a challenge. She asked: “What one thing during your writing career did you have to learn the hard way, on your own? Something you wish someone had told you or warned you about?”

Well, quite honestly, most everything. Still, in thinking about this, I was reminded of a very good piece of advice that–had it come with a caveat, or I had been smarter–could have been even more valuable. You see, I used to be really new at this, too. I entered the publishing industry naïve and eager, but we’ll get to that soon enough. First, the good advice.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received, in regard to the publishing business, came from Douglas Clegg, though it is unlikely he knows this. I was at my first horror gathering, which happened to be the first Horrorfind Convention, with my friend Kris. Being far more gregarious than I, but also a novice looking to break into publishing, Kris made quick friends with a number of people, and I tagged along behind her, smiling, nodding, keeping my mouth shut and trying to keep my fanboy reflex in check whenever Ken Foree or Michael Berryman walked by. One afternoon Kris was speaking with Doug, and he mentioned the HWA and their message board (a very different beast than the board they have now). He suggested she join the organization and then just observe the comments on the message board to get a feel for what was going on. He also encouraged her to ask specific questions, but mostly he felt it would help immensely if she just read the posts and absorbed.

What I got from this exchange was that it was important not to come screaming into the conversation, but rather to sit back and listen. What he did not say, and it is something I believe would have proven beneficial was: Everyone wants to be helpful, and they will give freely of their knowledge—whether they have any or not.

I feel qualified to speak to this topic because, as noted above, I entered the business wide-eyed and dumb as toast. I didn’t have the knowledge or the confidence to navigate the system in the way that would have been most beneficial to my career. I took quite a lot of bad advice and made every mistake a new writer can make. This happened because upon entering the business, my assumption was that everyone knew more than I did, and therefor, everyone’s advice was pretty much equal in value. It sounds ridiculous in retrospect, but there it is. I let the business make me its Bitch.

The thing is when you’re new to this (or any other) business, you might assume, as I did, that anyone further along in the process has something useful to teach you, but think of it this way: you’re about to enter a prison system and you can either come in as a Guard, a Thug, or somebody’s Bitch. After all, you can have a person in the publishing correctional facility for 3 months, 3 years, or 3 decades, but a Guard’s experience is going to be far different from that of a Thug’s.

A Bitch’s experience is going to be the worst. These boys and girls come into the business vulnerable and uncertain, and they are looking for quick and easy ways to establish themselves. They do this by becoming a Bitch. Note that I am emphasizing the words Quick and Easy—let’s call it Queasy—because that is the key to being a Bitch. It is Queasy to send poorly written material to a freebie site. They have nothing to lose by posting your story, so you get jazzed, thinking you’ve accomplished something, but the fact is, the “publisher” takes no risk by accepting whatever is thrown his or her way. Similarly, you place your first novel with a “publisher” who uses CreateSpace to format and distribute the title. They do minimal promotion, expecting you–the newbie author–to fling copies far and wide, effectively doing more to promote the publisher’s name to other Bitches, who will eagerly sign on for the same reasons you did. The title becomes an ebook and it’s on Kindle! Along with millions of other titles. If sales are bad, do you think the publisher blames his or herself for bad packaging (because your cover will suck–don’t doubt it), insufficient marketing, or any of the other facets of book failure?  Mmmmm, no.  And there’s no reason they should. Again, there is little risk involved for said “publisher,” so there is no need for concern, and certainly no motivation to discern quality work from not-so-quality work.

There’s very little effort required to survive publishing as a Bitch. You take no chances, expend minimal energy, and you find peace, even satisfaction, at your chosen station because it is safe. And you can surround yourself with other Bitches all assuring you that you’re doing the right thing.

In a highly publicized research study from David Dunning of Cornell University, some very interesting theories of self-perception were discovered: “The research shows that incompetent people are inherently unable to judge the competence of other people, or the quality of those people’s ideas.” As such: “Very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is.”

My only two internet explosions, which is to say, the two occasions when I felt I behaved very badly on message boards were a direct result of individuals who fell squarely into the description above. They were incompetent and remain so, but they fought for their right to be ignorant at every turn, going so far as to insult well established professionals in the field.  My issue was not that they questioned/berated/annoyed me, but rather, that they were insulting to real industry leaders who had decades of experience and who were trying to help said idiots: free and solid advice from people who knew the business! And just because what was being said did not fit into the juvenile philosophies of these two individuals, the professionals ended up being treated like diapers.

Were the prevalent environment such that these two gentlemen proved to be anomalous–just a couple of nimrods who were unable to accurately weigh the value of advice or expertise—then the problem of bad advice would be inconsequential, but that is not the case. One of the magical qualities of human nature can be boiled down to the old saw about another class of the animal kingdom: birds of a feather flock together. This they do, and often enough they shit all over the landscape. So instead of one or two people with bad ideas perching above our heads, there is an entire flock. From these groups come philosophies that are tailor made to make the incompetent feel capable and even successful, mostly because the bar is set so low. I call this the Gospel of the Bitch.

It is very important to point out that these people do not mean any harm (well, most don’t). As noted above, they want to help. Their hearts are in the right place, and they may well be the nicest, sweetest, most generous folks you’ve ever encountered. They should be applauded for taking the time and energy to offer you assistance, but understand that they are preaching a gospel, and the more people they can bring into the congregation the happier they are, because you and others will be supporting their faith.

How do you know the Gospel of the Bitch? It goes back to the Queasy I note above. Bad advice can sound incredibly logical, but if something will get you somewhere fast or easy in publishing, it’s best not to invest all that much hope in it. Now again, I’m speaking to NEW writers. Folks who have been around for a while can make up their own minds. They may be Thugs, Guards, or Bitches, but my warning is for the new kids on the haunted block, who are honing their craft, testing the waters, and looking for legitimate guidance.

What kinds of things will the Church of Bitch suggest? “It’s important to just get your name out there.” Definition: spend hours of labor and imagination on a project and then give it away to whoever will format it and throw it on the web to be forgotten. LISTEN closely; one sale in a reputable market is worth 100 “sales” to most freebie websites. I want to use names to exemplify my point, but I won’t. Well, I’ll use one: Laird Barron. He spent (probably still spends) weeks, sometimes months on a single short story, novella or novelette, and those stories regularly appear in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and a truckload of Ellen Datlow-edited anthologies. His output might be seen as minimal, but the value of his work and his reputation are unquestionable. Other authors have sold dozens, maybe a hundred, stories in the same time frame, but mentioning their names here would give them far more publicity than they’ve earned.

Another choice bit of advice is “Self-publish. Digital has made publishing a level playing field.” This is not an argument about the merit of self-publishing. You can visit Joe Konrath’s blog for that discussion. This is about craft. As a new writer you need, emphasis on need, to hone your craft, and you need experienced people to help you with that. Editors are one such group of experienced people. You may think your work is done, polished, good, even rivetingly magical, but it probably isn’t. If it is, then it will sell to a recognized market and you won’t need to self-publish. If it isn’t, then you can save yourself some embarrassment by working on your technical skills and submitting to legitimate editors. Sure you’ll get some form rejections, but along the way you’ll receive more personalized notes and possibly even sell some stories. If you jump head first into self-publishing you eliminate any semblance of quality assurance. No one is going to edit it for you once its published, readers are just going to add a single-star rating and a “God, this blows” to your Kindle reviews.

Further, if you don’t have enough confidence in your work to take your lumps with editors and critics, why should anyone have enough confidence in your work to spend even a penny on it? Maybe you’re absolutely brilliant and your work will be discovered. Maybe. Not likely or even remotely common. For every self-pubbed title that becomes a sensation, there are tens of thousands that come and go like gnats on a summer’s eve (douche reference intended).

Here’s the thing. All advice isn’t equal. Know who is giving the advice and listen to it critically. If it sounds too good to be true—if it sounds Queasy—you are likely hearing a tract from the Book of Bitch. Obviously, there are exceptions to everything I’ve noted here, and your experience might be vastly different from others, but if you’re in publishing, you’re here because you can’t help it. You certainly didn’t get into it for fame or fortune. You have to be here, because you are compelled to tell your stories. And it’s a life sentence.

So welcome to the cell block, New Meat. Enter with pride and confidence. Believe in yourself and earn your place in the yard. After all, there are no victims in the Gospel of the Bitch, only volunteers.

*****

Thanks to Lee for playing along. Please visit him at http://www.leethomasauthor.com to see what he’s up to and grab the books you haven’t read yet…

6 Responses to 101 — with Lee Thomas

  • Bill Bohrer says:

    God bless you man. The advent of word processing has made it difficult for a lot of people to distinguish prettily packaged crap from good writing. Self publishing only works if you don’t care about making money. Vanity presses weren’t invented with the internet after all. IME They Are great if what you want is complete editorial control. But like you say that’s rarely a good thing

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  • gypsy69 says:

    “refers to its use as prison slang”

    Because the extended rape metaphor makes this so much better!

    So glad I will never read anything you’ve written if this it the level of thinking you put into your work.

  • Kelli says:

    gypsy69:

    since i’m not sure if you’re pissed at Lee or me, i’m going to approve this comment. if you’re upset with me then it’s probably a good plan you don’t read my stuff. if a rape metaphor, or rather a prison rape metaphor, is too much for your tender sensibilities, my castration scenes would just put you in the nut house. thanks for reading my blog and good luck with your future reading endeavors in the YA world.

    ps. the use of gypsy69 could be construed as a sexist comment toward real gypsies and could offend any of them… except this one, who could care less.

  • Lee Thomas says:

    Gypsy69: While I have little doubt you’ve dated your share of inmates, it is apparent your pillow talk did not consist of asking the proper questions. I was clearly discussing power roles and how some people voluntarily enter into the “bitch” role as a means to endure their situation. Note the word voluntarily. I’m not trying to change your mind about reading my work, because I could not care less, but at least build your outrage on something of substance. Thanks and hugs.

  • Jennifer Nikstad says:

    For K, always publish the comments. If it becomes a pissing contest afterwards you can always put and end to it, but exchange of free thought is a good thing, wouldn’t you agree?

    Lee,
    Well said. I particularly like the Cornell U study reference. I am not a writer, but it applies in any business.

    Gypsy69,
    I can only assume you didn’t read past that line and/or you aren’t familiar with irony. Go to counseling. I’m not trying to be flippant, it just occurs to me that relatively healthy people don’t tend to react so strongly in this situation. If you’ve had a trauma, go deal with it so you can use that knowledge to better the world rather than continuing to make jabs at people over the internet–a truly time wasting endeavor with insignificant impact on anything.

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