Writing: The Profession NO One Respects

I have debated even posting this — it’s a hot topic, I’m angry, and I dare not use names. Under such circumstances before, I have summoned more lightning than I care to deal with.

Nevertheless, this must be said.

Not one, but two, big SF/Fantasy editors have now said, in almost exactly the same words, “I’ve always thought writers should be forced to get a real job (get out there with the people) — it’s the best way to meet characters.” Parenthetical phrase said to the other writer; as written, said to me about another writer. In both cases, the editor was pleased at a full-time writer having to go back to a day job to cover slow payments from publishers and the career effects of chains ordering to the net.

Look at this from a number of directions. First — the implication of “forced.” In each case, the editor’s wish for a levelling effect is much in evidence by the choice of that single word. Writers left to their own devices would obviously never crawl out of the house, talk to anyone, observe anyone. Writers not “forced” to do what someone else thinks is good for them would apparently be too stupid to do what was good for them on their own. Or even to know what is good for them, since obviously these two powerful editors, and perhaps others, know so much better.

Clearly, from this editorial perspective, full-time writers are something to be dreaded, or pitied … or perhaps just fixed. The way one fixes a cat. Without consent, for its own good.

Second, that statement reeks of jealousy. Writers meet people all the time, ones we like as well as ones we don’t. So obviously the issue is NOT meeting people.

It’s control.

Full-time writers aren’t under anybody’s thumb. They work any hours they want, take off whatever days they want, punch no cards, write in their pajamas or (ick) stark naked, or wearing ratty jeans and sweatshirts. Granted, most people would do anything to avoid my chosen hours, but I like them and they’re mine. Full-time writers don’t have anyone they call boss — editors are, at their best, collaborators. They can be listened to or not at the writer’s whim, if the writer is willing to take the consequences. Many writers are.

But in what other profession does the middleman from your work to its completed state feel that you would be better at what you do if you had to do it while holding down a part-time job to make ends meet?

Do car salesmen think that Detroit would be turning out better cars if the designers were having to flip burgers part-time at Mickey D’s to keep the wolf from the door?

Do hospital administrators think they’d be better off in the hands of surgeons who were moonlighting at Wal-Mart?

Have Stephen King’s editors ever thought, “Steve should go back to teaching — his characters are getting a little thin?” (If they have, they’re obviously post-lobotomy.)

Finally, it demonstrates an amazing, even sweeping ignorance of what writing is and where characters come from. I don’t get my characters from people I meet. I use outsiders for window-dressing — expressions, voices, ways of walking, styles of hair, shapes of bodies. But all my characters come from inside me. They are all aspects of me, and the more willing I am to be honest about myself, to personify my ugliness as well as my goodness, the better my characters are.

Good characters come from the writer’s integrity, period, and stand or fall by that measure. Anything I need from other people where character development is concerned, I can get from a half-hour in the mall, or shamelessly evesdropping in shops and at restaurants, or while watching other people work.

Is this what all editors now think? There were editors once who were proud of the number of full-time writers in their stable. They were proud that they were part of supporting and creating something that they loved — for these editors loved books, loved to read, believed in what they did. And — make no mistake — a good editor’s hand helps shape the final book in ways readers never imagine or suspect. Talented editors help writers see their own work more clearly, and guide writers to writing better books. Jim Baen was one such editor — don’t know if he still is, but he was once. Are there any others? I don’t know. I think editors who respect writers and love books are a dying breed, and their passing signals dark days ahead for us.

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About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and self-publish my new ones.

4 comments… add one
  • Robert A. Sloan Aug 14, 2002 @ 17:22

    Gahh. Big sloppy comment there. I got pretty passionate on the topic too because I get that all the time at my day job as a cripple – they want me to treat that bull as more important than the fact that I work full time.

    We are not their employees.

    We are their suppliers. Just the same as if we were sausage makers that shipped out to the delis that slice them. That’s who we are. Independent producers. We have a lot more in common with small farmers and independently owned truckers – and doctors or lawyers in private practice – than with accountants or people in firms or the editors themselves. They are high ranking people in firms.

    Thank you for this post.

    It’s inspiring one or perhaps several articles, one will be about writing and a couple of them might go broader than just ‘writers’ because I think these things can change. They will, I don’t think it can just go on getting worse without something snapping somewhere along the line.

    There’s economics and there’s custom.

    It’s not right to insult people and put down their jobs because they produce or do something real instead of taking orders from someone, unable even to decide what to wear in the morning without someone else’s policy involved. One of the few million reasons I’m a writer is that I still think it’s a personal invasion for anyone to expect me to cut my hair for work – when it’s still going to be that haircut when I’m home in the evening and I have to live with that, with them as part of who I am. Let alone wasting money on expensive yet ugly clothing for something like that.

    I’ll write. It’s what I do. You’re an inspiration!

    Robert and Ari >^..^<

  • Robert A. Sloan Aug 14, 2002 @ 16:49

    I’m with Katherine.

    I think they’re swimming against the tide, to be honest.

    Jealousy is a BIG part of that attitude. Holly pegged it. They are getting strangled by people farther up the line who basically apply short term ripoff policy to them, they’re not allowed to edit, they get double the work load and they have become office slaves like the people in the secretarial pool. They put up with shit from whoever’s higher on the vicious food chain, so they should get a chance to kick someone lower. It’s not fair that writers, who own their own means of production and can just take what they produce to someone else, can laugh and walk out when things get insulting.

    It’s not just the work hours.

    It’s the working conditions that most people out there face. Any full time writer does have that independence – but this isn’t the only industry that thinks tightening the belt by cutting *productive* people versus executives is a good idea. It happened in the high tech stuff and it’s starting to come home for some of them. If they don’t have their geeks, the geek stuff doesn’t get maintained. Without maintenance it starts to degrade.

    Basically, I have a problem with the idea anyone should be stuck with a "real job" by that kind of description. Kept in the kind of economic slavery that puts their survival in the hands of petty sadists who are themselves just the victims of bigger ones. A writer only needs to work for those bozos once in their life, or have lunch with anyone who does, to start getting the pattern and building the character.

    We’re living in the cyberpunk time.

    The world looks like Gibson’s SF if it got redecorated by Martha Stewart. It’s changed, it’s changing and it will change a lot more before it’s done changing.

    My personal goal – first get on my feet. Take the times for what they are. Then change what’s in my reach.

    Robert A. Sloan
    Aristophenes MRC Sloan >^..^<

  • Holly Lisle Aug 14, 2002 @ 16:24

    I have to have faith that it is not universal — that not all editors are this callous, or this oblivious. If I thought the only people in the business were like these two, I don’t know that I’d be able to keep writing. The betrayal that this implies — that the people who should most want to see the writer succeed and who ostensibly work to help the writer succeed are in fact gratified to see things go wrong — is a betrayal of the highest order.

    It was like watching a knot of editors walk out of an editors’ panel right after I sold my first book, and hearing one of the two editors mentioned above say to another editor, "I’m on my way to tell some of my writers that they’re dead. They have no idea." After which, she laughed. I’ll never forget that. I still recall vividly the expression on her face as she said it. And I thought — "This is people’s lives you’re laughing about."

    But I have to believe that even within the big commercial houses, there are editors who give a damn. Who see their writers’ success as part of their own. Who have not lost sight of the books in the middle of the numbers.

  • Katherine Aug 14, 2002 @ 9:04

    Two words: small press. I suspect the big publishers are as hostile to editors who love books as they are to writers. They end up with editors who treat words as a commodity because that’s what they (the publishers) reward.

    Since words are not a commodity, this attitude will eventually backfire. At some point, I suspect we’ll see new distribution technologies break the stranglehold big publishers and big bookstores currently have. Can’t happen soon enough.

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