Monday, June 28, 2010

Are we too nice?

by Jim

At a writer’s conference a few years back, one of the organizers implored me to, “Keep it happy. No one pays to hear they won’t make it.” Which led to some questions on my part:

First, why single me out? Do I look like such a downer that you have to tell me not to be a schmuck?

More importantly: is it fair to tell publishing pros to keep it peppy so as not to scare off potential paying guests to your next writers conference?

MOST importantly: is it really right to be upbeat all the time?

Listen, I’ve told people time and again that they’re only going to make it if they keep trying. I just wrote a very positive entry for another blog about how determined you have to be to make it in this business. I do believe that wholeheartedly. But sometimes the numbers sneak into the back of my mind, and I think about how many people will never make it. At the risk of discouraging people who haven’t yet reached their fullest potential, are we encouraging people who will never succeed? Is that fair?

Or do the doubts of every writer do enough of the discouraging on their own?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Is it right to encourage everyone? Should we be more brutal than we are?


  1. I don't think that's fair at all. I understand people pay to attend conferences with the hope of landing an agent; however, they also pay to learn, which I feel is very important. Why else would they offer workshops, panels and master's courses?

    I was told the same thing, and I've found a happy middle. By nature, I'm a nice person (or so I hope I am!). I'm always very inviting, happy and cheerful when I meet a writer at a conference. I always encourage writers, give advice and hope that they get what they're looking for in terms of learning. I don't request everything - I don't think it's fair to them to have an agent's request that isn't genuine. I also don't think it's fair to those whose material I AM interested in reading to be in a queue because of manuscripts I'm not interested in.

    In the end, it's a business and a passion. Treat others with the respect you want and hopefully you'll receive the same. There's the occasional writer who just doesn't want to hear the truth, but by giving the truth, they'll learn that this subjective world of publishing probably isn't the business for them.

    Great blog post - and good link :)


  2. Great post. No answer for the conference thing. It's a tough situation and I can see both sides.

    I'm an encourager, too, but recently started to reevaluate how enthusiastic I am. Some people aren't cut out to be writers, for a myriad of reasons. (I'll never be a statistician, not because I'm not a really swell gal, but because I don't have the talent or personality for it.)

    I do think we can be realistic while still being upbeat.

  3. Great post, Jim!

    First of all, in this business staying upbeat is the key to survival. There are too many other factors to roll over a writer and keep them down in the dumps.

    But on the other hand, I think a reality check never hurts. That's where one's writing peers come in before they even reach the agent/editor stage. These are the valuable folks who tell a writer where they need improvement. I believe the craft can be learned. But I also believe there is another factor that should exist like talent. But, and there is a but. As a friend/critique partner I would never tell someone else they couldn't succeed in the business. First of all, my job is to offer feedback--on their current work. By offering that feedback I want them to improve and put out the best work possible so they can succeed.

    And finally, well its rude to stomp on someone else's dreams. What goes around comes around. (For all I know they could be working on the next bestseller...)

  4. This make me think of American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance tryouts. For years many of these poor souls have been lied to by family, friends, and themselves that they have what it takes. They end up making fools of themselves. I for one would like to be told, "you sing so bad it hurts my eyeballs," or "perhaps you should only dance in the closet." Same with writing, if after years of trying I just don't got it, I want to know.

  5. Upbeat can be good, but there's the danger of coddling, and when that happens, not only does it encourage those who are never going to reach the potential, but many of them think that they don't need to put forth the same amount of work and effort.

    Determination is essential in this business, but not just to keep trying, but to keep improving. I'm just getting into the query phase, but I keep going over my writing to figure out how to improve it, my methods of writing, and everything else.

    In teaching, I've seen a lot of students who will keep trying, but there are very few who will actually improve. they just put out the same mediocre effort expecting it to get better on its own, or for me to magically give them a better grade. It doesn't fly with me, and I know it won't fly with agents and editors.

    So I'm all for a little reality check honesty in telling someone that they need to not just keep trying, but really improve his or her writing in order to make it.

  6. I think it's a stretch to say people will stop going to conferences because they hear the hard truth (# of queries per day x 365, compared to # of new projects taken on each year). First, most of us our delusional and think we'll beat the odds. Second, as Kathleen noted, a lot of people go to conferences simply to learn and to improve their writing (And to meet other delusional . . . (ahem) writers).

  7. Put me in the delusional category. I misspelled "are". HA!

  8. I don't think anyone should be discouraged, but it would help if agents gave more constructive criticism. Many of my rejection letters sound so encouraging and nice and VAGUE and I wonder if everyone hears the exact same niceness that I did from a particular agent. I know it is impractical to give specific criticism in every rejection letter, but it would probably turn away the unliklies and help those who really have potential to take it to the next level.

  9. As with any other issue, I think it's in the delivery. It's not an either/or thing to me. You can be real with people (and honest in your viewpoints), yet do so in a respectful and constructive way. It's the difference between constructive criticism and bashing. I don't pay good money to attend conferences because I want someone to blow smoke up my ass; I go to learn and meet other writers. :)

  10. I think critique--especially negative critique--is the most fundamentally important thing for a writer to a) get and b) listen to. It's not a commentary on the end goal (whether someone "has what it takes" to get pubbed. Negative critique is a commentary on that moment in a work's life.

    Taking criticism is a matter of focusing both on the short-term (this sucks and needs revision right-now-this-minute) AND on the long-term (it will get better if you take critique and might ultimately get pubbed).

    Anyone that takes a short-term critique as a long-term condemnation is just not going to improve. They're not willing to put in the hours. They're willing to give up. Anyone that actually gives someone a long-term condemnation, ever, is just crappy. The conclusion might be extensive revision or even starting a new project, but it's never "you'll never get published."

    Authors: Making sure that you've taken enough critique into account BEFORE going on query is so important. Once you get in front of an agent, the myriad demands on his/her time mean you've only got one shot. This critique/revise thing is your due diligence beforehand.

  11. I guess I get the writers doubts, but it's my determination that keeps me going, along with ego. Not that I think I'm the best writer in the world, but because I know that if I work my butt off, I'll get better. And yeah, the numbers aren't in my favor, but hey, people win the lottery every day. At least with writing, it's not just about luck, but my effort which will eventually pay off.

    I think that's the biggest line seperating writers- those who work for it, and those who want to hear it will come to them for free.

    So yeah, bee cheerful, but be truthful too, IMO.

  12. I agree with a lot of the comments on here. Writing and publishing is a subjective business and one must remain slightly 'thick-skinned' in order to move past negative comments, let alone succeed. In a perfect world, there would be a happy balance between constructive criticism and glorified acceptance. In our world, one must slough through the sea of detrimental road blocks and hope, somewhere along the way, the road is paved smooth.

    Hokey analogy? Sure. But I think literary agents and publishers alike know what they want and know it when they see it. It's a hard blow to get rejected, but I can only assume the acceptance blows it out of the water.

    As authors, we need to be savvy and intelligent when it comes to querying and pitching our masterpieces. If I'm not prepared when I have an agent's attention, well there's no one to blame for their criticism but myself. So, deal, move on, get better, smarten the hell up and try again. And never hold the agent/publisher/editor at fault for recognizing my mistakes.

  13. I don't think the conference organizer should have told you that, no matter what their motives. It seems like they wanted you to be dishonest. However, I think we have a duty to be encouraging to other writers new or seasoned, but equally we have a duty to be honest.

  14. I wouldn't want to be a "dream killer" however, I would be completely honest with a touch of kindness and encouragement. It can be done. I know because I did it. No, not as an agent but as a middle school language arts teacher. Adolescents are not that different from your average struggling writer. Unsure of themselves. Cranky at times. In need of authentic encouragement and honest guidance.

    It's a lot easier to just go for the negative and reason it out with, "I was just being honest." It takes some serious thought and human decency to package that honesty with just the right amount of reality AND kindness. But I'll say it again, it can be done.

    Yes, a thick skin is a must for the aspiring writer, especially when we encounter those who feel the need to rip and shred, but the only way to become a better writer is to listen to the advice of the professionals and fellow writers - no matter how snarky or rude. Remember, it is about the writing and not the person who wrote it. It took me a little time to realize that.

  15. That's silly. If you truly believe someone has absolutely zero talent, by all means stress to them how difficult the business is and their realistic chances (it's not saying, "you suck," it's saying, "make sure you really want this".) This will accomplish one of two things:
    1 - They will eat a LOT of chocolate, and then realize that maybe writing isn't for them and move on to computer programing.
    2 - They'll say, "Screw that" and work their little bums off until their manuscript is the best it can possibly be because they are aware of how competitive it needs to be and how competitive the market really is.

    Don't let conference runners get you down!

  16. Writers conferences are expensive enough! Don’t go discouraging the wannabes, or the cost will just get higher for the rest of us.

    I actually posted about this over the weekend. Publication is all good and well, but it shouldn’t be THE reason we write. Writing is its own reward. Publication, success, fame, fortune; those are all nice after the fact. Still, it would be nice to have one’s own park in Universal Studios based on one’s books:)

  17. You guys are brutal? My experience with DGLM was painful for its lack of brutality.

    Your agency recently read my full manuscript multiple times. Upon rejecting it, I was told that I'm a talented writer and that my book was very, very entertaining. When I followed up by asking for specific and constructive criticism, I was told that the agency policy is to not criticize because "fiction is so subjective."

    I understand that you have to spend your time with your clients, but I don't think it's unreasonable to ask for some form of critique. You've read the manuscript- you've already formed your critique, why not pass that critique along so it becomes useful?

  18. Gil:

    It is unreasonable to ask for a critique. Seriously unreasonable.

    (And I'm in no way affiliated with DGLM, not even as a client.)

  19. Gil:

    It is unreasonable to ask for a critique. Very unreasonable. (I am not affiliated with DGLM, nor am I their client.)

  20. Heh - I run across this all the time in LA. Here's my two (or four) cents:
    I think it's not that you need to be 'upbeat' in order to not scare away potential 'whoevers'- it's about not being whiny or angry at 'x'. (Hey, triple negative!) I know in my (dayjob) business we all find it difficult in various ways and to be with someone who automatically complains about everything just makes your job harder. It's easy to complain and whine. It takes a little more effort to comment in your own voice and take ownership of your words/thoughts, which I think is part of the business side of things for a writer. Think it's best to be honest AND your 'better-but-still-true' self (as in civil, courteous etc). After all, people like your voice in your books. If you're all sweetness and light when your books aren't there's going to be a disconnect. People often mistake sharing their own angst/sore spots with sharing the truth. It's not the same thing. When you focus on presenting the truth/facts, what the listener does with it becomes their responsibility. People who don't already know it's tough to write (esp write pro) aren't paying attention and there are plenty of places that will hand hold people if that's what they want/need. Most going to conferences want to know what's really going on so they can learn (I think someone above said this too). It's not what you say, it's how you say it and that can make all the difference - to yourself too. You can't be responsible for whether people get discouraged but you can give people the option to decide for themselves. It's a hard world and a hard business so it helps if we all do our part to make our own corner a little brighter, but I don't think wrapping people in bubble-wrap is very helpful. They need to be able to think/decide for themselves. If that includes telling them they might want to have a hardhat handy, so be it. Then they have the choice of whether or not to use it. :)

    In other words I agree with many of the comments above. :D

  21. A few years ago, I met with an agent at a conference in San Diego. He will remain nameless. He sat down, stated he hadn't had time to read the sample pages I was asked to submit weeks ahead of time, dismissed the fact that I had written 11 nonfiction books because they were small publishing houses. I left feeling totally defeated. Every time I see this guys name anywhere, my teeth clench. Had he read what I submitted and told me it was garbage, I'd be happier. At least, he would have acknowledged my effort.

  22. Say what? *jaw drops to floor* Anyone who knows your reputation, (a conference rep. should have)knows how professional you are. Your rejection of my novel last year was so kind I wanted to be your new BFF. No really, all kidding aside (and stalking), it forced me to take another look at my writing. I realized I needed more education and my novel needed a ton of work. So, I stopped querying it and did what I had to do to make it the best that I could present. Don't squash anyone's dream but do be completely honest.It's a fine art--smiling while you crush someone's hope--better left to politicians.

    As far as whether you look like a schmuck, couldn't tell you, haven't met you in person. If you look like Charles Manson or the Unabomber then I can see how the conference rep. might be concerned.

    In a sea of not so stellar people, you float to the top. So that being said, I hope you keep rejecting with a kind hand.

  23. Brutality is unnecessary. If someone has hopes that you're 100% will never be met, then what difference does it make if you dash their dreams now, or their dreams are dashed later?

    That they try, that they love the art enough to try, is enough. The pursuit of any art is worth the self-growth, self-expression, greater understanding of the art, the enthusiasm they share with others, and the support they give to the writing world (both emotional and financial), whether they meet "success" or not.

    We are all on our own journey, the reasons and motivations of which we can hardly fathom ourselves.

    Criticism with a kind hand is always possible. Yes, some people just don't hear you unless you're brutal, but my experience as a piano teacher for fifteen years is that even if you're brutal, the ones who won't hear it when you're nice will discount what you say with brutality anyway. So why not be nice?

  24. You can be encouraging while at the same time communicating what needs to be worked on. It's a balance between discouraging and giving false hope.

  25. I think you need to be honest with your opinions. If you feel a writer is hopeless, I wouldn't couch it in exactly those terms but certainly you would be being helpful by saying the writer needs much work to master their craft. Writing, etc. is such a subjective thing. Who is to say the 'hopeless' writer today can't work hard, hone their skills, improve and if they have the fire in their belly to keep going one day write a marketable book? But there is, in my sense of it, a responsibility to give your best take on a writer's work...but don't be brutal about it if it is 'hopeless' in your mind. Of what benefit is it to you to be brutal? And why would anyone want to trample on someone's dream? It's how you say it that counts. I'm not saying to offer false hope. Be true to what you think...but use a velvet glove.

  26. "No one pays to hear they won't make it." Indeed! Thus all of the writing advice books that claim anyone can be a writer by learning the following X number of simple rules. Cha-ching!

    But if literary professionals lose focus on selling good writing to readers (which requires encouraging bad writers to leave the playing field) and instead shift to selling false hope to writers... well, are they really "literary" professionals any more?

  27. I live by this rule:
    1. Is it kind?
    2. Is it honest?
    3. Is it necessary?

    Pick at least two.

  28. Tricia said exactly what I thought of when I read your post - this is how people get American Idol Syndrome. Everyone needs to know the facts - period. Good decisions are made based on knowing as much as you can about a topic.

  29. So some of us want you to be Paula, while others prefer you to be Simon. I'd say you'd be safer being Randy, Dawg.

  30. This is about scriptwriting but is salient:

  31. If they can be scared off they should be scared off. Being an author is too tough coddle them.

  32. I love upbeat IN THE REAL WORLD! If I just want to hear unrealistic upbeat I have friends to tell me I'll get published, etc. If I pay, I want to come away with something I can use--something that will get me closer to my goals.

  33. I believe you SHOULD encourage writers, but to a point. We must still know and understand the reality of this business, and we must learn to work through the brutality. That's the only way we'll ever get anywhere.

  34. One of the best workshops I ever went to was by Donald Maass back in 2004, when he came to our RWNZ conference. He based this particular workshop on his book, The Career Novelist. Why was it the best? Simply because he was honest about how hard it was to be a writer and become published. And yes, it wasn't all stuff that we wanted to hear, because of course we all want to hear that all it takes to be published is writing a great book -- no-one likes to hear the bad news. And many of the attendees weren't happy! But for me, that workshop sure grounded me and made me realize that if I wanted this, I had to want it bad. Being an author isn't easy. It isn't glamorous. It's hard graft for sometimes very little payoff. I needed to go into this with my eyes open and I'm very very glad that I had the benefit of a reality check from an industry professional, right at the very start of my career as a writer.

  35. I've recieved two form rejections so far in my querying process. One was so encouraging about continuing querying other agents that I had to wonder whether everyone was getting this same letter - if someone sent in a query that was so abysmal that it was obvious that no agent would want to represent the writer, would he/she be encouraged to keep trying? Niceness should be employed when possible, but not when it creates delusion or false hope.

  36. I prefer complete, boldly-spoken honesty. Add no flowers.

  37. No, I don't think it's fair. If someone's not meant to be an author, why should they punish themselves with all this--all right, I'm going to use a bad word here--"work" when they could do something else they may be great at? Beyond the fun parts of this gig like writing a rough draft and reading a great book, the other duties of a writer (like proofreading, critiquing, networking, promoting, and reading poor or average books) can be time-consuming and maddening. I wouldn't do it if it wasn't meant to be, if I wasn't getting published a lot.

  38. Suzi McGowen said...
    I live by this rule:
    1. Is it kind?
    2. Is it honest?
    3. Is it necessary?

    Suzi, I agree with you, but this reminds me of a joke.

    A man ran up to Socrates and cried, "Socrates, you'll never guess the rumor I just heard about one of your students!"

    Socrates held up his hand. "Before you speak, let me ask you three questions. Is what you want to say kind?"

    "Er." The student blushed. "Not really."

    "Is it true?" asked Socrates.

    "Uh... I really don't know if it's true or not... it's a rumor..."

    "Is it necessary?" continued Socrates, lifting an eyebrow. "Given that it is neither kind nor even necessarily true, is it going to make the world a better place to tell me this rumor?"

    The man hung his head in shame. "You're right, Socrates. Never mind."

    This incident shows why Socrates was regarded as a wise and good man.

    It's also why he never found out that Plato was boinking his wife.

  39. I don't go to conferences, because I don't find conference culture helpful (partially because of the endless rah-rah wannabe tone).

    Instead, I take craft-specific classes with talented classmates. I practice at home and measure myself against a high standard that comes from inside. Seriously.

    After many years of developing my craft, I recently queried some agents for the first time. I landed one in the first round.

    The end.

  40. Personally, I like knowing what the odds are and I don't buy it when a speaker says to an audience whose work he doesn't know that getting published is just a matter of persistence and hard work. Honest, constructive support is what serious aspiring writers crave. Not happy-face fabrication, but not harsh, unkind, nonconstructive attitudes, either. If a speaker can provide specifics about what he sees going on in the industry, combined with observations of what he sees working well in these circumstances, that keeps it real and constructive.

  41. I must be attending different conferences than you, Jim. I was once told at a pitch meeting, "Your book doesnt make any sense!" Another editor once requested a full, never responded, and when I saw him a year later, he refused to even acknowledge my existence. His assistant assured me they had the manuscript and would get to it. Never heard a word. When I have run into professionals who are polite and encouraging, I greatly appreciate it.


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