Having spent the last few nights reading through a couple agent/editor blogs (Query Quagmire and Slush Pile Hell) that show the kind of crap that shows up in the slush pile, I figured it was time for a discussion of professionalism.

If you’re serious about writing as a career then you need to treat it as a career, and that means acting like a professional. 

(Now, before I come off as sounding too high and mighty about the whole thing, let me assure you that I have been there and made those mistakes.  And part of this post is driven by over ten years of professional (non-writer) experience that occasionally involved some painful lessons along the way when I, personally, screwed up.  I still do.  I still will.  But I hope by now I’ve learned the basics.)

So, while I’m not an expert in the publishing area and I’m sure there are protocols in this industry that I still don’t know, here are a few basics:

1. Consider any query you send as part of a prospective business relationship and treat it as such.  This means you should:

    1. Address the person in a professional manner (use Mr. or Ms., spell their name correctly, etc.)
    2. Don’t complain, whine, or beg in your query.
    3. “Never let them see you sweat” – don’t mention how long it took you to write the novel, don’t mention how many times you’ve been rejected, don’t mention how desperate you are to be published.
    4. “Fake it ’til you make it” – even if you’re nervous as hell about your writing and not sure you got it right, pretend you are.  Make them think you can do this whole author thing.
    5. Leave your personal ideology out of the mix unless it’s relevant. (Read through the query letters, you’ll understand.)  (It’s great that angels dictated your novel to you and you’ve just written the next great holy work, but maybe that’s something you can keep to yourself until it’s a best seller, because, for most people, voicing a strong ideology will get you nowhere.  Unless they share it and that’s why you approached them.  By all means, tell the publisher that is seeking “divinely inspired works” that yours was given to you by a higher power.  But otherwise, hold that little bit of info back.)
    6. Check your ego – Don’t brag unless it’s relevant to the situation.  No one cares who you know or who you’ve read or where you went to school.  (Unless, of course, you’re writing a juicy memoir of your friendship with that VIP, in which case you damn well better mention it.)
    7. Follow the submission guidelines.

2. Once you have an agent or publisher, treat it as a professional relationship.

Since I don’t yet have an agent or a publisher, I’m pulling on my non-writing experience for this one.  But here are a few thoughts:

    1. You’re working with professionals who do this every single day.  The person who designs your book cover has designed others and will continue to do so.  The Marketing Manager has marketed other books before yours.  Listen to them.
    2. This doesn’t mean that if you’re feeling uncertain or uncomfortable that you shouldn’t ask questions.  Be willing to seek out knowledge so you can understand things.  But do it in a respectful manner.
    3. If you feel you’re working with a bunch of incompetent fools, there are two options: (1) you are and you need to find new people to work with (as in, “why did you go with that unproven, unknown agent or publisher?”), or (2) they know what they’re doing and you need to step back and realize that.  Be well-informed enough to know the difference.
    4. You also need to pick your battles.  Maybe the cover isn’t as brilliant as you wanted it to be, but is it pretty darned good?  Weigh how people will perceive you if you argue the point against what you’ll get out of it.  By all means, if your character is an African tribesman and the cover shows a white woman on a fertile plain, speak up.  But if it’s just nit-picking, hold back a bit.
    5. Be accountable.  This means owning your mistakes as soon as you recognize them.  (Trust me, this is the hardest thing to do in a professional environment.  Been there, heard the shouting on the other end of the phone.  Felt the strong desire to quit and work at Wendy’s.  But hiding a mistake doesn’t help anyone, so the minute you know you’re going to miss that deadline, or think there’s a very high likelihood that you will, let the people who need to be in the loop know.)
    6. Hold up your end of the bargain.  If you commit to doing something, do it.  And, if (as in D above) you fail to do something, don’t dwell on it.  Fix it.  Call, say you’re going to miss the deadline, give a new one, and meet that one.  Don’t cry and wallow and what-have-you.  Get your shit done.  And do it well.  (I once had a group paper where one of the guys in the group turned in his section with brackets around whole paragraphs outlining what he would have said there if he’d actually bothered to write the paragraph.  A day before the paper was due.  You can bet that he was not on my team the next time there was a group paper due.)

3. Consider your writing career in everything you do.

This one sucks, but you have to do it.  QQ mentions an author who criticized their editor in a public interview.  Bad form.  I currently have a Facebook friend who constantly complains about their co-workers and their job.  What happens when those complaints get back to said co-workers?  And what about any of their Facebook friends who might have thought about hiring them for a project in the future?

Hell, this blog is a huge risk for me.  I’m voicing opinions here about a field that I want to enter and who knows who I’m offending with my uninformed opinions.  (You don’t know what you don’t know…)  And, sure, just because I offend a few folks doesn’t mean I won’t find some success in the field (a recent blog reading exercise proved that to me), but look around a bit and you’ll find authors who were a little too vocal in one area or another who have most definitely paid the price in terms of potential readers or business partners.

I firmly believe that at some point you need to decide that it doesn’t matter what others think and you need to choose your own path, but (as with all things) it’s better to make an informed decision.  At least consider how people will perceive your “private” actions in your professional life.  (And that’s another blog post for another day – aligning your life with your actual self instead of being miserable trying to be what everyone else wants or expects you to be.)

OK, so anyway.  Bottom line: Act like a professional if you wanted to do this professionally.

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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