Friday, February 4, 2011

Victims aren't sexy

Though I realize the term “wall-banger” sounds decidedly filthy, it’s how avid readers describe a book that frustrates them to the point that they hurl it across the room.

Each reader has something different that might prompt them to chuck paperbacks at the wall. For me, what sets my throwing arm in motion is a character stuck in victim mode.

Everything happens to this character. The character doesn’t actually make anything happen.

I’m not just talking about a string of bad luck, either. Plenty of authors expertly throw all manner of atrocities at their characters, from famine and pestilence to a bad case of jock itch. But how the character responds to these things makes me decide – usually within the first chapter – whether I’m willing to stick with the character through 400 pages, or if I’d prefer to do something more pleasant like unclog the hairball from my sink.

The reason I’m thinking about this isn’t because I’ve had a recent wall-banging experience with a novel. It’s because I feel some obligation to remind authors at all stages in their careers that agents and editors don’t like victims, either. Not just in your manuscripts, but in authors.

Every time I see someone taking to the interwebs to lament a rejection or setback, I cringe. I totally understand the need to share experiences with other writers and to gather support. Believe me, I get it.

But it’s the tone that can be a red flag.

Pop quiz, let’s pretend you’re an agent. You aren’t dumb, so you know an author is querying widely. You know there have been some rejections along the way.

But if you see something like this on a writer’s blog, what are you going to think?

I got three more rejections this week. Obviously they don’t understand my vision. Whatever, I don’t want an agent who isn’t willing to take risks.

I’m not quoting anyone directly there, but I’ve certainly seen similar diatribes. The statement smacks of victimhood. Woe is me. I’ve been wronged.

How likely is it that an agent or editor will want to work with someone who has that attitude?

My amazing agent and I had a pretty bumpy path to this current three-book deal. But no matter how many roadblocks we hit, I made damn sure I never fell into victim mode. Oh, sure – I might have muttered quietly about my own crappy luck and even placed curses on several editors’ genital function. But I didn’t do it publicly, and I sure as hell didn’t mention it to my agent.

The fact that she had the same approach made me admire her all the more. Maybe she screamed at her computer or got out her editor voodoo doll in the privacy of her home. I’d be surprised if she didn’t. But the tone of her interactions with me was always this:

It sucks, but here’s what we’re going to do next.

That approach in the face of setbacks is the #1 thing that kept both of us committed to plodding forward together.

I guess what I’m suggesting is that you pay attention to the tone of your public declarations of rejection. If you do decide to share your setbacks, do it in a way that suggests you’re capable of getting back up and marching forward instead of wallowing in a pool of your own bodily secretions.

What do you guys think? Have you seen the sort of thing I’m describing? Have you done it yourself? Do you disagree about what’s OK to vent in public? Please share, I’m very interested in a discussion.

I’m also very interested in knowing how to repair a paperback-sized hole in my drywall. Hypothetically speaking, of course.


Patrick Alan said...

Are you saying not to hang your ass out in the wind?

'Cause that feels nice, even though you are mooning people in the cars going by.

Linda G. said...

Not surprisingly, I totally agree. :)

It's a tough business, and even tougher not to vent sometimes. I get that. But why not pick a few "safe" writer buddies you can vent your little heart out with privately? And return the favor for them, listening when they need an ear. You get the release without the possible oh-my-gawd-did-I-really-shout-that-to-the-world regret. :)

Laura Maylene said...

Yes, I've definitely seen things like this, and it always makes me cringe. There's nothing wrong with blogging about rejection as long as it's done honestly and the sincerity of what the rejection means is clear.

When someone blogs, "Whatever, this agent sucks!" that tells me the writer is having an immature, defensive hissy fit. Immature, defensive hissy fits are not to be displayed for public consumption.

A thoughtful piece on rejection and heartache and fear of failure and tenacity, meanwhile, can be quite touching. (Even so, I wonder if writers should think twice before writing too many of those posts. It might not be wise to continually highlight your failures. Though I guess it depends on every writer and her situation.)

Also? "Wallowing in a pool of your own bodily secretions"? Gross!

Jess said...

I agree with you, and with Linda. If someone needs to vent online, s/he should do so to close friends or in a private or friends-locked blog entry, not out where everyone else can see it.

I've been reading your blog for awhile but I think this is my first comment, so hello!

Sierra said...

I totally agree. I hear the victim mentality a lot from college students, too, and after a while I get frustrated. You got a bad grade on a test? Maybe you shouldn't have gone out to a kegger the night before. UGH.

As to the sheetrock, I can help with that. I had to patch a dent once from when I threw a glass at the wall. It didn't break. Instead, it dented the wall and bounced unharmed to the carpet. Kinda took the wind out of my temper-tantrum-sails...

Matthew MacNish said...

I don't think there is anything wrong with discussing rejection publicly, as long as you go about it in a productive way. I don't do it so much anymore, but I used to post a lot of my terrible old queries on my blog, and even the agent's response, with any identifying info redacted.

I would then analyze why it sucked, and what I had since learned to do differently. I think it has been a big help to some other writers, hopefully allowing them to avoid the same mistakes.

But complaining, or whining about it? Publicly? Waste of time and energy. I understand the need to vent, because it does hurt, but do that in the privacy of email.

Sarah W said...

I agree.

Does rejection suck? Yes.
Should I suck it up and move on? Again, yes.

I might whine on my blog about how much I dislike learning experiences (which are what you get when you don't get what you want), but I never doubt the fact that they are, indeed, learning experiences. And that I have a lot to learn.

Danica Avet said...

I agree. You have to be careful when dealing with social media. Everyone's connected now and it only takes a split second for something you say to change the way people see you. I believe in not stepping on anyone's toes, or griping about the writing industry. Yes, there are some things that frustrate me, but I keep them private because no one really wants to read it, do they? It's just like you're pouring nothing but negative energy into the world and it affects others.

I understand venting and being upset, but I do try to keep my humor in all situations. It's the only way to keep yourself sane as far as I'm concerned.

Tere Kirkland said...

"If you do decide to share your setbacks, do it in a way that suggests you’re capable of getting back up and marching forward instead of wallowing in a pool of your own bodily secretions."

Truer words were never uttered in such a graphic way. ;) It can be hard to stay positive in the face of rejection after rejection, but this business is nothing but rejections.

It's not going to end when you get an agent, or interest from an editor, or even when you have a published book under your belt. The best thing you can do is concentrate on your work, and be able to receive criticism in an objective manner. Because that's the only way to improve as a writer.

I love how you tied this all together with the idea of the character as victim. Great post!

Patrick Alan said...

I love that SPAM comment.

Kim Mullican said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kim Mullican said...

OMG - what sort of weirdo sends that sort of spam? LOL

lora96 said...

Gechhhhhh the anon spam comment makes me want to wash my brain with ammonia. Twice.

In other news, I make a killer cake called the Harvey Wallbanger..named after the drink cuz there's vodka and galliano in the recipe. So wallbangin isn't a bad thing sometimes :P

It does ick me out when people believe that their rejections evince a wrongness/stupidity in the world at large rather than, perhaps, something that they could fix themselves.

Michelle Wolfson said...

I started reading this post and thought, where is she going with this?? Then I saw--we're awesome. Go there anytime.

That spam is kind of hilarious and creepy. Doesn't it take time to post on blogs??? And if they can develop a program to do it for them, couldn't they find something more productive to do?

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Spam, spam, spam, spam... Oh sorry, I was having a Monty Python flashback.

I totally agree w/you. I vent sometimes about personal things because I'm committed to people knowing I'm human and not a robot. But I don't complain about writing. Even when I was looking for an agent and experienced a (more than) fair amount of rejection, I didn't pout. I moved on positively and powerfully. I kept writing. I kept researching agents and querying. Hard work and focus pay off. No one likes a whiner.

You crack me up, girlfriend. Every single word you write is hilarious. (Yes, even the way you say "and" is funny.)

jmartinlibrary said...

Can I just saw, you are my HERO today. As an agented author who's going to be stepping out into the big, bad world of subbingforthefirsttime, I appreciate your post so much. Thanks for keeping it real and keeping it sane.

Amanda Bonilla said...

Rejection sucks. It happens in all stages of the game: querying, submission, and then there's the reviews after you're published... Everyone needs to vent, but there's a right way and a wrong way to go about it. This was a great post!

Elise said...

I love this post. I tend to agree with both you and Matthew. I think there can be merit to talking about rejection in a productive way. Since we are all connected and in many ways all in this together, we can learn from each other's rejection stories.

When Laurie Halse Anderson posted on the Deb Ball that her manuscript for Fever 1793 was rejected and that felt awful, it gave me comfort that even someone as amazing as LHA has been there and dealt with it. Of course, the best part of the post was that she didn't whine about the rejection, she USED it to look again at her MS, realize it was flawed, work to fix it, then send it out with huge success.

The "woe is me" moments are for close friends and a bottle of wine. Those moments will pass, and when they do, you won't want them on public record. The productive examination of rejection is helpful to all of us, and can be done in a public forum to great effect.

Anonymous said...

I'm totally into aggressive venting of the "woe is me" & "you totally suck for making me miserable" variety. However I don't have a good memory for which of my author friends actually like, work with, or are represented by the professional from publishing world who passed on my brilliance.

Because I recognize this flaw of mine and its potential to affect my career, I keep ALL my venting to when alone in the car, at a stoplight, with music blaring loud.

I get the bonus of knowing others think I'm having a road rage moment and when traffic moves again, they quickly get out of my way. :D

Abby Minard said...

I've seen people talk about it before, but nothing really TOO bad. If someone I'm following acts like that, honestly, I'll probably un-follow them.

I'm totally fine with my crit partners spewing venom about their experiences to me personally, but not on a blog for all to see. That's one of the no-no's I learned very early on when I started blogging.

Unknown said...

What what? I've always thought the 'woe is me' approach to life was the most constructice attitude out there, certain to win you many many friends and guarantee you success in whatever it is you do.



Sierra Godfrey said...

I couldn't agree more. I make a point not to mention my failings or my gains because I don't think they're relevant in a public forum. There have been a few times when I've vented on Twitter, but never specifically, never about an agent--sort of about my own failings, really. And even that I regret, because I don't think our struggles toward publication have a place in the grand scheme. We all have that path.

Unknown said...

I did do some blogging about the bumps, but it was always about moving forward. Rejections hurt and the support is great. The positive vibes from other writers helped me get back on my horse.

When I vented about rejections it was about disappointment, not finger pointing.

Raven Corinn Carluk said...

I think venting publicly can be okay. But, as you say, so long as the tone is correct. We authors blog because we want our readers to get to know us. Hearing about our struggles, and how we deal with them is a great way to get to know about us.

Like when the book character's puppy dies, and her tire goes flat, and she's run out of toilet paper, and she just picks herself up by her bootstraps and keeps going. It's good character development.

India Drummond said...

It's sort of like the addage: dress like the person whose job you want. It really does make a difference if we portray ourselves as successful. I've seen authors use online handles like "rejection star" or whatever. Might be funny to your friends, but what are you going to do when you have, well, actual readers? I would be put off buying a book from someone if I went to their blog and found out it took them 20 years and 5000 rejection letters to find someone to publish their book. Although that doesn't mean a book is bad, it might sound that way to a reader.

lahn said...

Another problem with publicly venting is that you set yourself up to stay in that mental cycle. There's nothing more addictive than the "woe is me" blues. It's difficult to write with such a chip on the shoulder.

As for the wall -- I am a firm believer that duct tape fixes everything. :)

Anonymous said...

1. Cut the drywall away around the hole, preferably from about 3" away from the damaged spot's edges, top and bottom, and to the studs (snicker) on either side, leaving a rectangular hole.

2. Cut a piece of sheetrock to the size you need, and screw (snicker) it into place using screws 1" longer than the thickness of drywall you're using.

3. Use self-adhering drywall tape to line the edges of the hole, then spackle the joints using a 6" trowel.

4. Let the joint compound dry, then sand flat and add a second coat, using an 8" trowel.

5. Let dry, then sand again, and add a final coat using a 12" trowel.

6. Let dry, sand, then prime the new sheetrock and spackle area.

7. Paint to match the existing wall finish.

8. Drink a glass of wine in self-congratulation.

Hypothetically-speaking, that's how you'd patch a hypothetical, paperback-sized hole in your wall. Unless it's plaster & lath. In which case, you're screwed. Buy a newer house.

Anna DeStefano said...

I LOVE any discussion on writing deeper and more authentic characters, Tawna. And your discussion of how to publicly handle your feelings about your writing successes and failures.

In this time of dramatic publishing industry change, our work and our views of our business are under more scrutinty than ever. I've talking regularly about the interesting turn that the release of my latest contracted novel for Dorchester Publishing has taken. Honest and willing to share information and insight, I'll do. Trashing my publishing partner who's still trying their damndest to work with me, not against me, isn't an option. I'm working hard. They're working hard. Is everyone happy all the time by the recent turn of events? No. But as long as we're working together toward the same long range goal--getting a quality novel to readers the best and most successful way we can together--how is venting frustration over the day-to-day going to help anyone?

And the writing... If the writing quality's not there, the rest is just show.

Thanks for an interesting topic! A friend sent me over to take a peak ;o)

Patrick Alan said...

Oh, fixing the wall?

Buy a picture frame that is slightly larger than the hole. Hang the frame over the hole.

Adding picture is optional.


Love the discussion here, you guys! Thanks so much for weighing in and sharing your thoughts. Obviously, emotions run pretty high when it comes to writing and publishing, and it's so hard to strike a balance between healthy venting and shooting yourself in the foot. Thanks so much for reading and commenting!