The Business of Personality; The Personality of Business

I feel I often bore you senseless with NaNoWriMo references, though it is a large part of my writing life. This time, I pinky-promise to use it only as a launchpad for my main point.

Over the past month, I’ve come to know two NaNo members particularly well: one through spending time together at meetings before the rest arrive, and one by corresponding mainly online. I’ve known both parties for some time, but by conversing so frequently, I feel I understand them better as individuals and as writers.

Notice the order of those words: ‘individuals’, then ‘writers’. I believe we can create better professional connections by first knowing a little more about the other person.

We’ve all probably passed sales reps on the street who ask, “Who’s your electricity supplier?” without so much as a preliminary, “How are you?” Three thoughts occur to me when I hear the electricity question:

  1. It’s annoying.
  2. It’s too personal and abrupt when you haven’t built up even a little trust.
  3. It signals that the seller is interested in you only as a customer, not as a person.

    A segment of a social network
    A segment of a social network (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve seen the people-first principle succeed before. I have a ‘day job’ in the civil service, and my department began experimenting in around 2010 with an internal social network modelled on Twitter. The rules told us that the site was primarily for business talk, but that some social and recreational chat was permitted. In practice, the social talk was predominant, and it led to a lot of in-jokes and banter. Yet when someone wanted to talk business, the others were more inclined to help because we were already acquainted with one another.

I still speak to some of these people today, though the network has long since closed. Of the replacement websites introduced, none has created the same sense of community. I believe that’s because the social club aspect has been relegated in favour of a business-first approach that doesn’t prompt the same connection.

So where can a writer meet with other writers without feeling as though they’re being sold something? Where I’m from, we’re lucky enough to have a regular monthly meet-up where any writer can drop by and interact with other writers on an informal basis. We meet in a bar aptly called The George Orwell, and there are no readings or speeches. If somebody does have work to promote, it never feels pushy because we all know each other socially.

If you ask your nearest library, they’ll probably be able to direct you to such a nearby group. And if there isn’t one, consider starting your own; it’s not easy, but it can be hugely rewarding.

Publish and Be Careful

As I’ve no urgent writing projects on the go right now, I’ve turned my attention back to submitting work to publishers. There are never any guarantees in publishing, but I have a few tips to help ensure the process is as painless as possible.

Keep a close eye on what you submit and when

I maintain a spreadsheet with the following columns: Publisher, Submission guidelines, Closes, Date entered, Decision notified, Title(s) entered, Entry method, Overall submission count (target 52 per year).

Most short story and poetry publishers insist that you don’t submit a given piece to any other place until they’ve accepted or rejected it. If a piece is rejected, I use the strikethrough font effect so I know it can be sent elsewhere; if accepted, it’s noted on a separate spreadsheet. Note that agents looking for novelists usually don’t mind if you send to several places at once.

Be early

Right now, we’re heading into the Christmas and New Year period. Publishing lead times can be so lengthy that it’s far too late to submit festive pieces, as editors will now be planning for Easter or even summer. Yet there’s also an opportunity here: if you’re inspired to write a piece this December, there’s plenty of time to refine it and submit it in summer next year for next December.

Unless instructed otherwise, use a standard manuscript format

On his website, writer William Shunn offers a range of templates that contain all the information publisher needs, such as your contact details and pen name. Occasionally, you might be asked to use a certain font or a different layout. In those instances, always read the instructions carefully and follow them precisely.

A printing press in Kabul, Afghanistan
A printing press in Kabul, Afghanistan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Be selective about entering competitions

This is perhaps a contentious point, but it’s a purely personal point of view.

When you send work to a publisher, there is almost never a charge. For a competition, there’s almost always a fee, and it can be up to £5 or sometimes more. Assuming an average fee of £3, entering even one competition a week can cost more than £150 per year. Aside from the financial aspect, I’ve had experiences where competition rules have been badly phrased or even self-contradictory, leaving me unsure how to enter.

That said, there are a few competitions I make a point of entering because they’re so prestigious or because the potential payoff would be worth it, which brings me to my final point.

Look at the reward offered

It’s a fact of a writer’s life that some publishers want your work without payment or other reward, usually with the well-worn line that they can offer exposure. If you do simply wish to make your name known, then by all means enter your work, but be clear about this from the beginning. I generally take no payment only when it’s for someone I know personally, or if it’s for charity.

Otherwise, the least I’d expect is a contributor’s copy of the finished book and/or a cash fee, however nominal. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of time to create a publishable piece, so never be afraid to charge for your work.

Taking Care of Business Cards.

At the end of June, I ordered a set of 500 business cards. I realised I needed a quick way of letting people know how they could reach me if the situation arose. I could write down my details but it’s less memorable, and often less readable, than a proper card.

image
The card in question

It contains my phone number, e-mail address, Web address, and Twitter handle; the former is censored in the photograph as it’s a personal number. I chose not to include a, “job title,” such as writer, poet, blogger, &c, as I didn’t want to make people feel as though they could only contact me in connection with these skills. Instead, the general sense of what I do is conveyed by the books in the background.

I bought the cards from Vistaprint, who threw in a metal holder free of charge, although there are more expensive services such as Moo.com. Just a couple of weeks later, I did indeed need one to tell a fellow blogger about this page. I currently earn very little money from writing, but I felt like a professional as I handed it over.

Dissecting Two E-rejection™ Slips.

If you’re a writer, feedback is a great thing, although less so if you’re a sound engineer. But the quality can vary considerably. Let’s consider two of my recent rejection slips, or the e-mail equivalent thereof. I think I’ll trademark the term e-rejection™.

We’ll endure the bad one first.

An anthology publisher sent me an e-rejection™ to my short story The Strange Case of Mr Brown, with the opinions of three readers.

Two of them commented that the story was bland, but neither of them offered up any specifics about why they thought so. With that information, I could have refined the weak parts. The third one pointed out that the eponymous Mr Brown had an eidetic memory, and that this case wasn’t strange, but I believe the reviewer missed the point that the, “case,” also referred to an unusual court hearing.

And now for something a lot better.

Some time ago, I sent a synopsis of my novel Fifty Million Nicker to an publisher. Less than two weeks later, they asked for the whole shebang.

In the e-rejection™, they told me that they felt the story didn’t take off and lacked a sense of drama or excitement. But they planted a useful nugget halfway through that summed up the areas for improvement: “You needed to surprise us with unexpected twists, and real obstacles, and genuine peril for the protagonist to overcome.”

Essentially, they were telling me to up my game, and I agreed with 90% of the criticism. I’d spent so long honing and polishing it that I’d never stepped back and considered if I could improve the actual story. And I’m now halfway through rewriting the some of the sections.

The common thread.

Both publishers commented that they liked my writing style, the latter even stated they would be happy to consider future work. When I write, I work to the principle that a sentence is only successful when you understand it after one reading. So it annoys me when I read a headache like this: “He knew that she wanted him to think that she had failed to call his bluff.” That’s not from a real book, thank goodness.

If you’re a publisher and want to slate consider the aforementioned works, I’m happy to send them on.