Professional Etiquette for Writers

OR, You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry

In their book, Million Dollar Professionalism for the Writer, Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta lay out the following bit of advice:

“Never, never, ever, never, never, never, never ever be a jerk.”

I’m half tempted to offer a hearty “Amen!” and end this blog post right here, because I’m not sure you’ll ever hear a better suggestion on how to act as a writer, nay, as a human being. But in the interest of hitting my word count, allow me to expand on this idea further by way of a real-world example.

A few months ago, I attended a writer’s conference with my sister, Lisa. In addition to both being published authors, Lisa and I have worked in the publishing industry for many years: she as an editor, and I as a slushpile reader. We had both taught classes at the conference, and Lisa was ending the day by taking pitches from some of the attendees.

At the close of the conference, I found myself waiting outside the room where Lisa was hearing the final pitches of the day. Realizing that the pitches were taking longer than expected, I pulled out my laptop and proceeded to catch up on a few work items as I waited.

Shortly thereafter, a man approached and asked if he could take the seat next to me. I agreed, and we introduced ourselves. He mentioned that he had attended one of my classes earlier, and that he had enjoyed it. I thanked him and asked if he was waiting to pitch his story. He replied that he had already pitched to Lisa earlier, and that he was waiting because he wanted to ask her a follow-up question. He then began to ask me about reading in the slushpile, how long I had been doing it, and how I made decisions as to what I recommended versus what I passed on. They were the sort of questions I get asked all the time from new writers, and I was happy to answer them in a little more detail.

Our conversation was moving along quite nicely when I began to sense that he was inching towards pitching his story to me. He kept bringing the conversation back around to the book he was working on, and while I was trying to remain friendly and supportive, I was also trying to subtly convey the message that I was not the person he should be pitching to, especially when I didn’t initiate a request to hear about his book.

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Unfortunately, my new friend wasn’t picking up on the message. He grew bolder, the conversation became more and more one-sided, and he proceeded to dump more and more of his book on me. I didn’t want to be outright rude to him, but I was becoming more annoyed with him the longer he went on. I kept trying to indicate that this wasn’t the time or place, and that I wasn’t the person he should be talking to, but he wasn’t hearing me. By the time he pulled out a three-ring binder and started showing pictures he’d downloaded that represented what he felt his characters would look like, and launched into a presentation of how his insanely complicated magic system worked, I’d had enough. I faked an incoming phone call, and excused myself to the other side of the room.

A few minutes later, Lisa exited the pitch room, only to find herself face to face with this fellow, who excitedly asked if she remembered him (she did), and if she had any questions about what they had discussed during his pitch session (she didn’t). Lisa looked at me and screamed a silent “SAVE ME” with her eyes. I immediately came back and we excused ourselves from the situation.

As soon as we were out of earshot, we began to debrief each other about our experiences with this person. Not only had his pitch session been a train wreck of infodumping and Internet photos (which Lisa had expressly told him not to show her), it turns out he had been emailing Lisa and other people in the office for a few weeks already. In fact, by the time we arrived back home, we both discovered that we had brand new emails from this guy waiting for us. And we were both annoyed.

Now, there’s a lot to be said for confidence, gumption, and general sticktoitivness in terms of how you present yourself. And it’s good to stand out a bit from the legion of other writers out there. But folks, hear me loud and clear on this point: you want to stand out for the right reasons!

You should practice your “elevator pitch” in case someone wants to know what your book is about. And if they ask, then go for it. But always—ALWAYS—be a professional. Don’t be THAT GUY or THAT GAL. Don’t ambush people with your pitch if they haven’t asked for it. And especially don’t get under the skin of the very people whom you are hoping will read your book and decide its future.

Because if I’m the guy who ends up reading your book in the slushpile, then you want me to be as happy as humanly possible. You want me to be sunshine and rainbows and little animated birds fluttering about as I read. You don’t want me to remember the time you trapped me at a writer’s conference and wouldn’t let me go until I had heard about every single character and plot point. You don’t want me going into your story already irritated with you. In the words of Bruce Banner: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”

If you want to be taken seriously as a professional writer, then you must act like a professional. Publishers don’t want to work with writers who are self-important divas, who can’t take criticism or direction, or who are just plain difficult.

In short: Don’t be a jerk.

Can I get an “Amen!”?

_____________________________

Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.

Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.

 

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