Steering between the Scylla of over-confidence and the Charybdis of under-confidence, or, a Thanksgiving meditation on the blessings of interactive gratitude

Yes, yes, I know: this is a national holiday, and by all that is right, patriotic, and holy, I ought to be lying prone on some big, well-upholstered piece of furniture, moaning about how much turkey I managed to stuff down my gullet over the course of the day, rather than posting here. But I’m still convalescing, thank you very much, a state not very conducive to reveling with pie.

This is also the first Thanksgiving within the span of my memory when I haven’t at least helped with the cooking, so I burn to be useful. Don’t get up off the couch; I’ll just lecture you from afar.

My charming SO has spent the last hour telling me that I can — and, presumably, should — take at least a few days off a year from burning to be useful, lest I find myself reduced to a Joan of Arc-style pile of cinders (which, frankly, didn’t look awfully good on her, and probably wouldn’t look any better on me). But one of the first things any editor learns upon getting into the advice-giving business is that writerly angst doesn’t take holidays.

Lest you doubt this: when I sat down to write tonight, I found no fewer than three e-mails from writer friends in my inbox, asking for advice. (I knew that they must be from friends, because mere acquaintances would have waited to send them until tomorrow.)

So: back to business. For those of you just joining us after a long winter’s nap, I’ve been yammering for the last couple of days about the desirability of SIOA — Send It Out, Already! — when one is faced with a request for pages, rather than revising and revising the manuscript for so long that the window of opportunity closes on the agent’s request.

Yesterday, I gave a pep talk to those good writers who find themselves currently in the painful throes of SIOA-avoidance, as well as laying the conceptual groundwork so writers who have not yet encountered “But is it REALLY ready?” turmoil will be prepared for it when it comes. Because, frankly, at one time or another, fear of submission has struck every successful writer I have ever known.

Okay, not EVERY: some are blessed with a superabundance of self-confidence, but in the publishing industry as in so many others, the hugely confident tend to be the folks who leave the air in their wake positively blackened with the smoke of their burning bridges.

Give me a worried nail-biter any day, I say. (Well, perhaps not on Christmas… or my birthday… but I can walk away from my e-mail any time, I tell you.)

The most confident writer I have encountered was a cookbook author who blandished me a couple of years ago (around Christmas, as a matter of fact) into introducing her to my agent and helping her with her book proposal practically to the point of co-authorship, only to pretend that she didn’t know me as soon as the ink dried on her book contract. She never seemed to doubt for an instant that the world needed her book — and apparently, a publisher agreed with her, because it’s out now.

For some reason, the agented encounter this stripe of bizarre super-confidence amongst favor-askers all the time: evidently, the shy, self-effacing, and polite are substantially less likely to approach us. (Which is one reason, in case you’re curious, that I respond so enthusiastically to those of you who post questions as comments here — here, I can answer a question once for the benefit of many, rather than one at a time privately.)

The persistence of the over-persistent ought to annoy the polite a little, because the boundary-pushers make it harder for everyone in the long run. For instance, one of the reasons that published authors tend to be reluctant to give feedback to hopeful strangers is that such a favor so often engenders not the gratitude it should, alas, but a detailed (and not always courteous) explanation from the overly-confident about how the kind author’s advice could not possibly be anywhere near the ballpark of correct.

Why, just the other day, the excellent and hilarious Bob Tarte, FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! blog) and animal life memoirist extraordinaire, sent me this illuminating anecdote on the subject:

A writer who had read Enslaved by Ducks and Fowl Weather emailed and asked me questions about how to write her query, attaching a copy of the query. I answered the questions and made suggestions about re-writing the query. The response from the writer: a detailed argument about my suggestions. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no authority on queries, but it seems to me that if you ask an author for input, then you should probably accept or dismiss the suggestions — and ask additional questions if you need to — but don’t argue with a person who is trying to help you out.

I’m with you, Bob: I can’t even count the number of times that writers have asked for my advice on a particular point — not infrequently by buttonholing me at a social event to ask me to summarize, essentially, an entire category’s worth of blog posts — and then came back to tell me with evident glee that they decided that it wasn’t worth taking, for the following fourteen reasons…

If I’m the only habitual advice-giver who doesn’t find it especially satisfying to be thanked this way… well, I won’t complete that thought, because I know for a fact that I’m not.

And how do I know that? Because spend an hour at any gathering of established authors, agents, editors, writing teachers, and the like (at, say, the bar at a writers’ conference), and you will almost certainly hear at least three complaints (often in the form of hilariously-embellished anecdotes, complete with mimicked voices) about this kind of behavior.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: while it’s perfectly fine to ask an author you admire for advice — because, after all, s/he always has the option of saying no — if the author is generous enough to respond, recognize that granting you a one-time favor does not imply an invitation to a lifetime of debate.

Simple thanks would do. Flowers would be nice, of course, but not strictly speaking necessary.

Sometimes, though, the super-confident camouflage argument under the cover of thanks. I once had a writer friend hit me up for detailed advice on a contest entry. After I gave it, he was so good as not only to explain to me in vivid Technicolor why my advice was misguided, but go on to hit up my mother (also a writer and editor) for feedback on his entire manuscript.

Wait — there’s more. Over my gasps of disapproval, my dear old white-headed mother was generous enough to ignore the fact that the book was half again as long as novels in that genre generally were and gave it some gentle analysis.

Need I even tell you that the writer responded promptly by sending her an EXTENSIVE letter, ostensibly thanking her for her trouble, but also meticulously addressing each point she had raised to demonstrate that she didn’t know what she was talking about? Or that many of the issues he raised there were ones for which I had already established well-defined categories here on the blog?

I’m bringing this up not to complain (okay, not ONLY to complain), but because over-confident writers often extend this type of behavior to agents and editors at publishing houses as well. Calling an agent to pitch on the phone, for instance. Or e-mailing a flame-mail response to a thoughtful rejection letter. Walking up to a rejecting agent or editor at a conference and demanding, “Why did you reject that manuscript I sent you six months ago?”

Or, the engenderer of many an embellished cocktail party anecdote, shooting back a letter to a rejecting agent jumping on one of the standard industry euphemisms: “What do you mean, you just didn’t fall in love with it? HOW doesn’t my book fit our needs at this time?”

This just isn’t good long-term career strategy.

Why am I harping upon the outrages upon etiquette committed by the tiny fraction of aspiring writers who happen to be blessed (or cursed, depending upon how you look at it) with complete confidence that they are so extraordinarily talented that everyone in the publishing industry not only should be delighted to help them — and that within seconds of having formed the acquaintance, or even before — but should confine their critique to Gee, your query letter/pitch/manuscript is magnificent. Don’t change a thing?

Because it doesn’t take very many such approaches to render the approached wary of ALL aspiring writers, including the 80% who would never dream of being so rude. Bombarded with many such approaches, as agents are, often from aspiring writers who have not learned enough about the industry to be aware that there IS any other way to try to market a book, wariness can turn fairly quickly to standoffishness toward the hopeful.

An attitude that, alas, is very discouraging for the shy. Having witnessed it in action– as a coldly-worded form rejection letter, perhaps, a slow response to a submission, or a “Well, that kind of book just isn’t selling right now” response to a pitch — the sensitive writer can fall prey to frightening fantasies about, say, how nasty the next rejection may be.

Or how mad that agent is going to be that three months have passed, and I haven’t sent those requested materials yet. Oh, it’s going to be terrible; maybe I’d better not send them out at all.

Starting to sound familiar? The over-confident’s dream transforms into the under-confident’s nightmare: the pushiness of the former feeds the environment that in turn feeds the fear of the latter.

Perhaps I’m overly-optimistic, but I believe that if more writers took the time to express gratitude for the help we DO get — and no, I’m not fishing — there would, in time, be more help available. I’ve met plenty of folks involved in publishing who honestly do like to lend a hand — and would do so happily, if not for the fear that the extended hand was going to be used as a ladder.

But this is a change that’s going to happen incrementally, through a lot of small acts of kindness in return for kindness.

Case in point: Bob Tarte sent me a really helpful anecdote to use here on the blog, and I’m grateful. So not only am I going to mention that I REALLY admire his writing — he is genuinely funny, not praise I bestow lightly — but I’m going to go ahead and post his book jackets here, for ease of recognition in a bookstore:

/snapshot-2007-11-23-00-24-39.tiff /snapshot-2007-11-23-00-26-24.tiff

Heck, I’m even going to add a plug for his new project, a weekly 30-minute podcast on exotic pets (anything other than cats, dogs, and livestock) on the aptly-named The show is called, much to my amusement, What Were You Thinking? and he co-hosts it with his lovely wife, Linda.

Okay, so it’s a small thing, but it gets the ball rolling.

And illustrates perhaps the best argument I can possibly give to the super-confident about why their tactics may not serve them in the long term: you don’t see me plugging the work of that forgetful cookbook author here, do you?

As my beloved first writing teacher, Philip K. Dick, liked to say: “Never screw over a living writer. You’ll only end up as material.”

Keep up the good work!

6 Replies to “Steering between the Scylla of over-confidence and the Charybdis of under-confidence, or, a Thanksgiving meditation on the blessings of interactive gratitude”

  1. Anne,

    Using Scylla and Charybdis and previously mentioning Penelope…oh, you are after my heart.

    I adore Greek Mythology and I appreciate such literary references because it makes me feel smart.

    A related anecdote to your step father’s quote is a T-shirt slogan that one of my writers club members wears: Careful or you’ll wind up in my novel.



  2. I can’t say that I’ve modeled any of my characters on those individuals who may have gotten on my “bad” side. Yet I find that I draw names for characters from friends, co-workers, former shipmates, and even former Presidents of the United States. Much of the time, the character in my work does not resemble the individual whose name I “borrowed” at all.

    1. In my experience, Dave, most people are more offended when a writer of their acquaintance DOESN’T write about them than when he does — but I think most of us also eventually have the experience of being confronted by someone who is CONVINCED that he was the real-life inspiration for a character when he wasn’t. Hard to know what to say: “I’m sorry, but I just didn’t think you were interesting enough,” seems hardly polite, eh?

  3. Thanks so much for the gracious mentions of my books (“Enslaved by Ducks” and “Fowl Weather”) and my podcast (“What Were You Thinking?” on, and for giving me the opportunity to add my name to your blog yet one more time. Much love!

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