The Gatekeepers and Fear

I was talking with a young writer I met this week and he told me that it’s gotten to the point where he genuinely doesn’t believe he can write anything that an acquisitions editor would want to read. I’ve tried to encourage him a bit, but it got me to thinking that that is probably a pretty common fear. I’ve actually met only two types of writers in my experiences: the egotist writer and the self-effacing uncertain writer.

Personally, I prefer the second one. The first one is the one you’ve heard me rant about ceaselessly as the type of individual who sends a query and then gets offended when we don’t appreciate his genius enough to ignore the fact that his sci/fi novel is written in haiku. The type of person that expects us to ignore the fact that his novel is full of typos and that my high school-aged sisters could come up with a better plot. The type of person that sends nasty emails in response to a rejection and tells us he’ll be looking down at us from atop the NYT Best Sellers list in a couple weeks. He’s also every editor and publisher’s worst nightmare.

The second type is so timid and shy they’re certain that no one will like their writing, that no one will read it, and when you actually read it (whether you reject it or not), they are so wildly grateful that they send you a heartfelt and genuine response. Often they are so scared they won’t even send you a query. They’re the type of person you meet on the street and after a few rounds of drinks they finally admit that they’re writing something. Oftentimes with a little bit of chagrin in their tone. When he queries you, he sweats because he’s not sure he used that semicolon in the right place and read the submission guidelines six times exactly to make sure he gets it right. I like this type of writer better than the other because they are so much easier to work with.

Of course, there are individuals in between on the spectrum, but the overwhelming majority of writers falls into one of those two camps. In my experience, we acquisition editors tend to be cynical and often outright grumpy in some cases. Of course, the reason for that is because we receive so many emails from the man writing haiku about aliens and expects us to snap up his book and publish it posthaste. Does that mean that you should be scared of us? Absolutely not. You have nothing to be afraid of if you read the submission guidelines (it doesn’t even have to be six times) and follow them to the best of your ability. Heck, even if your novel isn’t the best thing we’ve ever read, the worst thing you’ll get is a ‘thank you for playing’ letter.

To be honest, I’d rather see a genuine, thought out query with obvious heart in it than a perfect one without any at all. For all our grumping, acquisitions editors are also human. If someone writes a query letter that really catches me or says something that makes me feel for them, I’ll respond. Even if I don’t accept their manuscript, I’ll send something a little more personal than a form letter in response. I’ve also, many times, offered writing tips to people that have potential but have a lot to do to execute it properly.

Getting rejected isn’t the worst thing that could happen to you. The worst thing that could happen to you as a writer is being too afraid to even try. Trust me, you never know who will read your stuff and love it. Just try.

I also heard another interesting thing from that young writer. He just couldn’t believe that 95% of what we get is such utter crap that we don’t even read it. Well, to those of you in that same boat, believe it. And when we say “crap” we mean alien haiku. We don’t say that because we’re snobs (some of us are, I’m sure, but not all). We say that because it’s true. I shared a few examples of queries that I’ve received with this author I’ve been talking about and he was absolutely aghast at the fact that anyone thought some of them were a good idea. Just because you’re afraid of being that 95% shouldn’t’ stop you from trying.

Don’t stop writing just because you’re afraid. Fear is the death of a writer. We’re afraid we’ll never get published; we’re afraid no one will ever read our work; we’re afraid that we’ll never make it. Stop with the fear. Writing is about soul, it’s about story, it’s about love, hate, tears, and stomping your feet like a six-year-old until the manuscript comes out. Don’t write for publication, write because that’s what you were born to do. Write because it’s what moves your soul and gets your blood stirring. Write because you have all these fantastic ideas running around your head just itching to get out. Let them out! Let your imaginary family eat and sleep and have sex and go on grand adventures. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you ever go anywhere with that novel, you’ve written it. Which is far more of an accomplishment than many ever achieve.

Also, recognize, that the only cure for bad writing is to keep doing it. The first novel I wrote was in high school. I don’t know if I have a copy of it anywhere, but it was on an old A: drive floppy last I knew. It was the worst, most cliché thing I could ever have come up with. It had plots that went nowhere, characters that did nothing and was just horrible. It was also more of a “novella” than a novel, now that I look back on it. I was very proud to have written 100 pages when I was fourteen. Now I shake my head and pat that little me on the head and go, “Wow, kid. And you grew up to be an author.” I’ve also got some truly atrocious poetry galloping around my hard drive.

I mention these things because every artist goes through angst. I still have some of my sketchbooks from when I was in high school (was it really almost a decade ago? Yeesh). I occasionally glance through them when I’m working on a particularly stubborn art piece and I chuckle to myself because all my friends and everyone I knew told me I was a fantastic artist. I look at it now and just want to crawl under a table with a book of matches and burn it. However, the point is that I’ve gotten better. Significantly. That fourteen year old girl that couldn’t write (or draw) worth a damn has gotten better because she never stopped doing it.

I’m still not sure how good that girl is at writing, or art, but I do know that I’m better than I was. And that I’m continuing to improve.

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4 thoughts on “The Gatekeepers and Fear

  1. A Fed Up Writer Who Isn't Jumping Anymore says:

    Well there is a third kind of writer – one who thinks the entire query letter process is the result of egotistical agents / gatekeepers who have forgotten one really important thing – the entire industry is utterly dependent on authors supplying the product. If we don’t write and offer it to you there is no publishing industry. No jobs for agents, no jobs for editors, nothing. All of it hangs on the willingness of authors to write. Making us quiver with fear that we will misplace a comma or ‘gasp’ god forbid address a query incorrectly or fail to read the OTT submission ‘guidelines’ less than six times AND sweat bullets getting the damn thing written and re-written, edited, advised upon, rewritten again, and it will still be wrong is wrong, wrong and more wrong. Gatekeepers need to try to remember who it is that actually makes the whole show work.

    And PS I am not a disgruntled failed writer. I’m published, but have since gained some much needed self-respect.

    • E. Prybylski says:

      Even self-published authors should work with an editor. Even editors work with editors when we publish books (I’m going through that right now). They provide much-needed services to help authors shape their works. However, I’m glad you’ve found success, and self-respect. Both of those are important, and as a gatekeeper, I don’t expect authors to shake in fear of me. Ever. I don’t want them scared. Just because the answer may be “no” doesn’t mean they should quake in awe at my power. Every publisher can’t publish every book that comes its way anyway, and not every book is a fit for every publisher. That isn’t always a facet of book quality, either. Someone might write a brilliant erotica that’ll knock the socks off of anyone who reads it… I’m still not its target audience!

      While authors indeed deserve respect as those who craft stories, they aren’t the only ones who do work in the industry. As an author and an editor and a publisher, I have a unique view of the whole industry as it works together, and it’s a symbiotic relationship. While authors might not need a “publisher,” I know very few who can typeset (well), edit (well), cover design (well), market (well), and all the other various and important tasks that stand between manuscript and book. Most authors aren’t fortunate enough to have the time or even the software to do most of those things on their own, though if they do then more power to them! People who work on manuscripts are more like mechanics and those who do body work on cars. The author has this vehicle that may or may not work, and everyone else fine-tunes it.

      While I have a great deal of respect for authors who choose to self publish and go about it properly, there’s no need for vitriol toward those who work in the industry. Both paths have virtues and setbacks, and both can be roads to success for different authors. No need to be crabs-in-a-bucket about it. 🙂

  2. Helen Bellamy says:

    All that is necessary as proof of the aforesaid symbiosis between authors and others in our industry is a quick read of many attributions in the novels of current popular authors. Those successful authors recognize how important to their success is that phalanx of support entities, and their gratitude is strongly expressed.

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