Monday, July 26, 2010

On Being Professional

I read a lot of blog posts by authors on issues of craft: avoiding unnecessary back story, building tension, developing effective characters and the like. These topics are all important. It doesn't matter how wonderful your ideas are, if you can't express them clearly and dynamically. A solid grasp of the writing craft doesn't guarantee success, but without it success is unlikely.

In this post, I want to consider another aspect of being an author that I believe has a huge impact on success or failure, namely, acting professional.

Most of us write primarily for the love of it. We have a passion for story-telling. Our tales excite us, and we hope and pray they will have the same effect on our readers. We may not really like to consider the business aspects of our authorial careers. Positive reviews are at least as strong a reward as royalties (which is a good thing, because it's tough to make money as a writer!)

However, publishing is a business, and if we want to be successful, we need to treat it that way. In every interaction, we need to present ourselves as responsible adults who take the challenge of writing and publishing seriously – professional authors, not amateurs.

What does it mean to be professional? It has nothing to do with how many books you've published. It's a question of how you behave. Here are some of my thoughts.

1. A professional rigorously honors her commitments. (Pardon the female pronoun—I know there are many male authors of erotica and romance but using a disjunction every time gets really awkward.) When she accepts a deadline, she'll get her work in on time come hell or high water. (If she thinks that a proposed deadline is unrealistic, she'll say so rather than make a commitment she can't fulfill.) If some life emergency interferes, she does her damnedest to notify anyone who might be depending on her. Obviously there are times when this just isn't possible. Overall, though, a professional writer treats her commitments the same way she'd treat the responsibilities of any job.

2. A professional communicates with courtesy and an appropriate level of formality. Being polite is surprisingly important. Disagreements are inevitable--with publishers, with editors, with reviewers and other authors. Acting snarky may be satisfying in the short term, but in the long term it will hurt your career. The publishing world is very small. Offhand negative comments you make on-line can come back to haunt you. With regard to formality, it never hurts to address a publisher as Ms. or Mr. in your first contacts. The Internet breeds a sense of familiarity but (I believe) everyone appreciates being shown a bit of respect.

3. A professional is meticulous and follows instructions. I've edited a number of anthologies. Nothing makes my opinion of an author plummet like receiving a query letter or a submission full of typographical errors and misspellings. It also drives me crazy when an author ignores the submission guidelines regarding medium and format, submitting a Word document when I ask for RTF, or single spacing when I ask for double. My conversations with other editors and publishers confirm that their reactions are similar. If an author doesn't care enough to read and adhere to the guidelines, I assume that she doesn't care that much whether I select her work, either.

4. A professional recognizes that she is not the only writer on earth. Acting like a diva will only get you a bad reputation. Everyone in the writing business is insanely busy. You're entitled to a fair allocation of your publishers' and editors' time but so are their other authors.

5. A professional respects herself and her work. This is the flip side of number 4. Even if you're unpublished as yet, there's no reason to grovel, beg or apologize. Humility is a virtue up to a point, but if you don't have confidence in yourself, nobody else will either.

This sounds a bit like a lecture. I guess I'm wearing my editor hat, expressing my frustration with some of the less professional authors whom I've encountered. I hope readers will forgive my didactic tone and consider my comments in the spirit they're offered -- as collegial suggestions based on experience, from one author (who has been in the business for more than a decade) to another.


Jan Irving said...

I enjoyed your post. I think the best thing to attain is balance as a writer. It's funny since I practice meditation and yoga and it comes down to the same thing.

Unknown said...

Another insightful post. This should go hand and hand with my blog about selecting a publisher because your post presents the "other side's" expectations. I hope I don't fit into any of those "shoes" you described. Lately, when I see a post that upsets or disappoints me, I write a response and promptly trash it. That way no one can assign their own emotions to my words. That's the biggest one gives anyone the benefit of the doubt anymore and contacts them offline for clarification. Oh, if only. :)

Lisabet Sarai said...

Hello, Jan,

Yes, we need to attain balance any way we can. I've always wished I could meditate but whenever I try, I can't shut my mind up. Actually I haven't tried in a number of years--maybe now that I'm more mature and at peace with myself, I would make more progress.


Lisabet Sarai said...

Hey, Ginger,

Yes, I agree. As authors, we should be able to expect professionalism from our publishers, and give it in return.

Thanks for stopping by! (And by the way, you are extremely professional, from what I can see.)


Diane Scott Lewis said...

Your points are excellent and something we often forget in our busy "cyber" lives. Courtesy and professionalism is important.

Jade said...

Thank-you for another wonderful post, Lisabet. An extremely important aspect, easily forgotten, but so crucial.

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