An Author’s List of Things That Go Bump in the Night


‘Tis the season for ghouls and goblins and other scary beings, so we at MW thought we would share a few of our own terrors with you.  Ed started us off Saturday, and trust me when I tell you that I’ll never be following him into a Men’s Room.  Today I’m going to offer a list (I seem to be into lists lately) of some pitfalls of the profession that fill me with abject fear, that keep we awake at night and haunt my dreams when at last I drift off, that make my blood . . . yeah, okay, they’re not all that scary.  But they do give me angst….

1.  Deadlines:  Starting with the basics here.  It’s not that I fear all deadlines.  Far from it.  I actually find them useful.  They motivate me and force me to impose a timetable on my creative process, which can be quite handy.  But right now I’m facing a deadline that I’m not sure I can make.  Sometimes I manage to forget about it and just write.  But then, at the oddest of times, it will just hit me.  I’ll be lying in bed trying to fall asleep, or in the middle of doing something with one of my kids, or taking a bit of time away from work and -Wham!- there it is.  The Deadline.  I used to get this feeling in grad school and college, too.  A sudden wave of panic, that little voice in my head saying “You’re never going to make it…”  Yeah, sometimes deadlines freak me out.

2.  Bad Copy Editors:  I’ll begin this by saying that most professional copy editors are remarkably good at what they do.  Copy editing is far more than catching typos and grammatical problems.  A good copy editor creates what are called style sheets for each book and keeps track of words, names, places, etc. that are unique to your story (very important in speculative fiction).  She also looks for inconsistencies, so that if you introduce a character on page 17 who is from Lubbock, but then say on page 358 that he’s from Laredo, she’ll write up what’s called a query to ask you which one is correct.  I have been fortunate — most of my books have been copy edited by one person who is just fantastic at her job.  But one or two have been less than great.  With one book, a copy editor became so engrossed in the story that s/he forgot to actually copy edit.  Flattering, yes, but we were finding typos and inconsistencies in the proofs, and later in the published book, that this person should have caught.  Another time I had a copy editor who tried to make all of my dialogue grammatically perfect, regardless of who was speaking.  Not good.  And I’ve heard stories from other writers that are far worse.  Faith has a couple.  Maybe she’ll share.  But take my word for it:  bad copy editors make Zombies look like soft cuddly kittens.

3.  Bad Jacket Art:  Again, most publishing art directors do a great job, and there are some terrific spec fic artists out there.  Generally speaking, I’ve had very good art work on my books.  But the threat of the Jacket Art From Hell always looms.  There is a famous filked song that one hears at conventions sometimes:  “There’s a Bimbo On the Cover of My Book” that really says it all.  I have a writer friend who once had a Wookiee show up on the cover of his novel, though he wasn’t writing in the Star Wars universe and didn’t have anything in his novel that even vaguely resembled a Wookiee.  A bad cover can be unrepresentative of the book, or it can be garishly ugly, or it can be so plain as to be useless.  Every author fears The Bad Cover.  We just don’t like to talk about it, lest we draw the attention of the Bad Cover Art Demons.

4.  Royalty Statements:  Notice I didn’t say “bad royalty statements.”  That’s another category altogether.  This is just the royalty statement itself.  Remember earlier this year when the new credit card legislation went into effect and all of a sudden banks had to make their credit card statements clearer so that people could actually understand them.  Well, compared to most royalty statements, credit card bills were as clear as a first grade reading primer.  Start with “Gross Units” “Return Units” “Net Units” “Earnings” “Payee Share” “Net Earnings” “Sub Total of Sales Earnings,” all of these grouped for “Current Period” and “Prior Period” and “Cumulative to Date.”  And then we get to “Prior Period Balance Forward” “Total Royalty Earnings” “Total Reserve Adjustment” “Total Additional Earnings” “Total Deductions.”  They’re about as clear as mud.  Is this intentional, a way for publishers to obfuscate how much they truly owe, or is it just arcane and therefore indecipherable?  I can’t say.  But I dread every statement I receive.

5.  The Mall Bookstore Signing:  Every professional writer has at least one signing horror story.  I have several.  But they all come down to the same thing:  You’re sitting in a bookstore at your favorite mall, stacks of brand new books in front of you.  The very kind bookstore employees keep coming by to make certain that you’re comfortable, that you don’t need a drink or another muffin or a pen or a five minute break or, perhaps, a new publicist.  They make their announcements on the p.a. system:  “We’re delighted to have fantasy author David B. Coe in our store today!  Stop by his table near the self-help section and get a signed copy of his new book, Why I Should Have Been an Insurance Salesman!”  But no one comes to buy your book.  People walk by the table steadfastly avoiding eye contact; parents usher their children past, whispering “Don’t speak to him!  Don’t even look at him!”  [Shudder]  I break out in hives just thinking about it.

6.  The Con Panel With What’s-His-Name:  You know the guy.  Never shuts up, has only published one book — self-published actually — but now thinks he knows everything there is to know about “The Business” and “The Craft.”  Or he’s incredibly successful — sells tons of books or wins lots of awards or, God forbid, both — but has the social skills of a wire-haired terrier in heat.  He thinks he’s hilariously funny, but it turns out he’s really just a misogynistic, homophobic, culturally insensitive pig who wouldn’t know Clever if it walked up to him and smacked him over the head with a light saber.  Every one of us who has done a con has met one of these guys.  Chances are we’ve had to sit right next to him.  I hate this guy.

7.  Bad Sales Numbers:  Yeah, okay, this one is real.  Because bad sales numbers, even for one book, can absolutely kill a career.  And the only thing I truly fear in this profession is having someone say to me “Sorry, David, you can’t do this for a living anymore.”  This is the fear that keeps us putting butt in chair, that keeps us looking for that next cool idea, that next character who makes us  go “Wow!  Yes!  This is the one I’ve been waiting for!”  So, I have to get back to work now, because that’s the only way to keep this ghoul at bay.  Do the work.

Happy Halloween to all of you.  And if any of you plan to be at World Fantasy Convention this weekend, please come by and say hello.  I’ll be doing a couple of panels (Yes, they actually gave me two) and I’ll also be at the mass autographing.

David B. Coe

31 comments to An Author’s List of Things That Go Bump in the Night

  • I’ve personally experienced several of these, but #5 stands out in memory. This was from my comic book writing days back in the–shudder– mid ’90s. I remember going to a comic store in Akron, OH, and they had mistakenly promoted the wrong date. I think a total of three people stopped to talk to us. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one sitting there. The workers were very apologetic and nice enough, but I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

    The least scary one to me, however, is #4. I wouldn’t mind that kind of fright right about now.

    Happy Halloween Week, y’all!

  • “We just don’t like to talk about it, lest we draw the attention of the Bad Cover Art Demons.” It really is scary, but when you put it like this I can’t help but laugh. And laugh. And laugh.

    Also #6, at which I can only wince. Unlike the Bad Cover Art Demons, these are virtually impossible to avoid.

  • All of these are distresisngly familiar but I’m particularly struck by what you say about royalty statements. I find them utterly baffling and frequently depressing but I always miss the crucial minus sign that says that I’m not getting the money I thought was coming. As to the That Guy on the con panel who won’t shut up or is just a cunningly disguised (and sometimes very successful) jackass? Oh yes, my friend, I know him of old. In fact, I think you and I have shared this realization together as it happened…

  • …That Guy on the con panel who won’t shut up or is just a cunningly disguised (and sometimes very successful) jackass…

    It’s a weird feeling, too, if you’re sitting on that panel when you start to wonder, “does the crowd think he’s speaking for all of us?”

  • Ah, yes, THAT Guy — y’know I used to wonder if the audience noticed or if was just me. But if you watch the audience’s faces carefully, you’ll see them react just as badly every time Jackass opens his mouth. Particularly if a truly big name is also on the panel. I saw this first-hand when Jackass with self-published book dominated a panel that was standing room only — why standing room only? — because they all came to hear Terry Brooks! Poor Terry barely got to speak a word. Poor audience had to listen to Jackass.

  • I love the post David! The wookie example is too funny. As for #6, I’ve found those kinds of panels very interesting from a spectator point of view where it’s obvious the other panelists are distancing themselves from “that guy” or sometimes are outright hostile toward him! Makes for good entertainment.

    I’ll be at World Fantasy and am looking forward to meeting you and anyone else from MW that will be in attnedance!

  • Stuart et. al.> Trust me, as one who has gone to panels, we don’t think THAT GUY is speaking for all of you, or indeed, any of you. And yeah usually the audience knows what is going on. I admit, when I’ve come to hear people who’ve gotten published the way I want to get published (that is, the traditional way, not self-publishing) I get annoyed when someone who I’m not interested in takes over the panel. To be fair, sometimes they aren’t THAT GUY, they just have differing interests, and that’s fine.

    The other thing I find scary–and I try hard not to be–is THAT GUY IN THE AUDIENCE–the one that tells you guys you’re wrong about things they obviously DON’T understand.

    Although I admit, a good fight on a panel can be delightfully fun to watch. And this is in the same spirit, I think, that folk watch Jerry Springer or the Jersey Shore. It’s hard for an audience not to chant “fight! fight! fight!” when some good discussion is going on. It’s great when it is folks who have different, valid, interesting ideas and discuss them with grace and geniality. It’s simply fun to watch when people get cranky. If all the panels were that way, I’d feel like I’d wasted my time, but often a lot of learning comes out of conflict, so it still works.

  • J.M., thanks for your tale of signing woe. Yes, it bears repeating, bookstore staff tend to be wonderful in these situations. They feel responsible sometimes, though, of course, they’re not. But they are generous and sympathetic and very supportive. And that helps, though only to a point. And yeah, I, too, worry about the panel audience thinking we’re all like the Jackass.

    Edmund, don’t laugh! The Bad Cover Art Demons don’t like it when you laugh….

    A.J., I remember. And I have to say that the best antidote to sharing a panel with the Jackass, is sharing that same panel with a friend with whom you can laugh at the Jackass. As for the royalty statements, what more can I say? I’d suggest that perhaps, being writers rather than MBAs, we’re just genetically predisposed to be baffled by them. But my agent assures me that she also finds them bewildering.

    Stuart, I once was on a panel with two big-name authors (I mean REALLY big name), one of whom was the author GoH at the con. The other BNA wouldn’t shut up, and the GoH did a slow burn for the entire hour. It was actually somewhat fascinating to watch.

    Alistair, I’ll look forward to seeing you at World Fantasy, and will do my best to keep the jackasses at bay during the panel I’ll be moderating!

    Emily, thank you; I should have included that audience guy in the list, but I was already running long. Yes, that person can be a total nightmare for panelist and moderator alike. I know what you mean about the entertainment and content value of conflict. And as long as the discussion remains professional I’m all for it. And even cranky can be done professionally. But when it gets personal, or when one person dominates to the exclusion of all others, then it becomes a problem.

  • David. So, *you* are the little demon in my head! I thought I had crushed you into pulp, buried you under a sale or two, tortured you, screaming, into silence but here you are again, whispering night-terrors to me. Evil *evil* imp. 🙂

    Copy editor stories. Oy… The worst was a bestseller friend who got a book back with every single *said* removed and replaced with a stronger word. You know, instead of *he said,* or *she said*, now it was:
    he declaimed
    she interjected
    he posited
    she rejoined
    he shouted
    she disagreed
    he interjected. No. Wait. Evil stupid copy editor had used that one. He *added*. Yeah. And on and on. For a book that was 150,000 + words. Full of dialogue. This was back in the days of pure paper edits, no electronic. Bestseling Author sat down and cried. She thought about having a rubber stamp made that said STET. (STET is the thing the writer writes in the margin that means undo CE’s change.) She survived. We all do. But it sucks.

    Another was a writer pal (national-level author with a million books sold) who had a truly angry, psyhchotic EVIL CE. He accused her of things in comments in the margins, and she would reply in the comments in the margins (as she is supposed to.) It all made it into the book. In one place he had made a note that accused her of being a homophobe. (She isn’t, at ALL!) She wrote back in all caps — I AM NOT A HOMOPHOBE!!! Yep. It appeared in the text. Her final read-through was a nightmare.

    My own most recent horror was similar to yours: a CE who didn’t read prior books or accept my updated style sheet. I had to pull the prior final books and go back and forth and STET. And then there was the other time when between pages 250 and 290-ish, he did *nothing*. I caught bunches of errors on the final read through. Stories. I got bunches. Evil imps who torture me. DIE, EVIL IMPS!!!!! DIE!!!!!!

  • Great (in a terrible way!) stories, Faith, thanks. But you call me an Evil Imp at the beginning and then you say “Die Evil Imps, Die” at the end, and that’s a little scary for me…. 🙁

  • What about the “I’m your #1 Fan” Cathy Bates type people? Or the creepy con stalker who happens to be at every panel discussion, follows you down the halls, and somehow eats lunch at the same restaurant?

    I’ve only been to four cons and last year was followed around at Albacon.

  • Oops. I got carried away. I need a copy editor.
    (snort, snerk)

  • Unicorn

    Aargh. Deadlines. I want a four-foot broadsword and a big shield to hide behind and some lions and a giant with an axe. Two axes. I hate deadlines! While you’re writing for them, they are fabulous, and they spur you into action and you get to whip the Muse into shape. But when you start revising you realise that this could take you forever to get it respectable, the deadline is tomorrow, ugh, ugh, ugh, and then off goes the story to the publishers/contest/whatever and you KNOW you could have done better… Bring on the axe-weilding giant.
    Er… excuse my ranting. I missed my last deadline (by accident, I hope…) which does not make me very kindly disposed to deadlines/my ability to write for them.

  • Unicorn

    Oh no! I commented twice! I’m sorry! Perhaps I need a copy editor…

  • NGD, for those of us who crave attention, stalkers aren’t so bad…. Actually, I shouldn’t make light — con stalking can be a very, very serious issue, and I’ve seen it become dangerous. Which is why I didn’t include it what was meant as a humorous post. But yeah, the con stalker can just be a minor annoyance or something far worse.

    Faith, yeah, well, I suppose I can understand getting carried away. But I’m going to be looking over my shoulder for your darn muse and his pasties all day….

    Unicorn, no problem on the double posting — I took care of it on this end. And yeah, deadlines can be a curse. But as you say, they can also serve a purpose. Best of luck with the next one.

  • Faith> There’s something fascinating about a book in which the CE and author’s marginal notes are included. I mean, it is a cool idea for a novel–a narrative voice through which other voices break. So you have the deep, emotional scene, “Luke, I am your Father,” followed by what seems like a much smaller voice shrieking “I am not a homophobe!” in the background. Weirdly comic. Though I understand why it would make an author nuts. The editing I do, I try not to scare the authors. Of course marginal notes of the kind of stuff I edit ending up in the text would be scary, too. “Can he really do that with his body?” (I ask in comment.) “Yes, I’ve done it this way, that way, and the other way, too.” (The author replies in comment. “Oh, well, then, okay.” (I say in comment.) “But I still think he needs to take off the pants first…”

  • David, it’s raining out, so you don’t have to worry about the pasties. Today my muse is wearing a clear plastic raincoat and rubber boots — red with white roses on them and his usual thong. No pasties. They’d clash. OH! And he’s carrying an umberella — red with black cats in honnor of the season. He’s such a fashion plate.

    Pea Emily … um … I have totally forgotten what kind of editing you do, but my muse is quite intrigued.

  • Emily, I seem to remember hearing of a story that was written in that way — charting the interaction between writer and editor. I don’t think it was in our genre, but I recall nothing else about it. I agree that it’s a great concept. And yes, like Faith (see her comment just above) I’m curious — what do you edit?

    Faith, thanks for that. I find it very . . . um . . . reassuring?

  • Faith and David> I edit romance and erotica for Breathless Press. It’s a small, but definitely growing, ebook press. I can say that everything I’ve learned became much more clear once I started editing. I can see what people mean by “telling, not showing” and other things. Some of the time, though, my job is to say “is this person still wearing clothes?” and “does a human body bend that way?” and “that sounds more icky than sexy.” I’m impressed, though, that truly, all the advice I’ve seen on Magical Words, and other places, applies in this genre, too. Story, characterization, motivation, etc. differentiate a sex-focused story (i.e. erotica) from porn, at least in my mind. And it has done wonders to expand my vocabulary. I’m still uncomfy writing my own sex scenes, though.

  • Pea Emily, did I know this? I was still having short term memory problems when we met, but … surely I’da remembered that! (grins) Too cool!

  • I remember you telling us a bit about this, but I had forgotten the details. I’m with Faith — that is way cool, and a terrific experience, I’m sure.

  • Deadlines scare me a bit because I have a full-time job and only so much spare time to write. But maybe that just means I have to crack down and stop wasting my spare time (within reason). But on Friday I saw a great presentation on The Art of War for Writers, so I should probably take those tips.

    As for #6, That Guy gets the audience just as annoyed. The only thing I can think of that is worse is when That Guy is in the audience and monopolizes the panel/session/presentation, wasting precious time with personalized questions.

    I just wanted to say, David, that this past weekend I was at SiWC (the Surrey International Writer’s Conference), and I had a blast. I did my unofficial MW minion duty and told a few people about this site, and recommended they bring one of you up for next year. 😉

    I also pitched to a Tor editor, and was asked to send a partial when I’m finished. 😀

  • Susan

    I must admit that when I encounter author in situation #5, I have a strong desire to whip out my credit card and help them out of the situation at least for a few minutes. However, this isn’t always the best response when, say, said author has written a how to guide on litter box training for elephants…

    I haven’t quite encountered the elephant litter box training but have encountered the well dressed gentleman who had written a book akin to a how to guide to setting up your very own neo-nazi group. (It was long ago so I can not remember name of author or book title. Then again, it could also be related to the copious amount of alcohol used to “rinse” the brain afterward of the image and the conversation.)

  • Moira, the best way to deal with deadline fear is to make one. Just one. They get easier. And that’s great news about your pitch! Congrats! That’s great. I hope it leads to huge successes! And finally, thanks so much for pitching our site to the SiWC folks. I know that I speak for all of us when I say that we deeply appreciate it. The site doesn’t work without all of you who visit and comment.

    Susan! Great to see you here, as always. As a writer I can tell you that the credit card approach lifts our spirits quite effectively. But, yeah, you might want to check out what it is you’re buying before you commit to anything….

  • Ron Friedman

    The problem with deadlines that I set to myself – is that I rarely meet them.
    Here’s an idea for a new short story (horror).

  • Ah, the book signing horror! I remember being invited to come to a rather large bookstore in Charlotte soon after my book had come out, to appear as part of a back-to-school promotion. On a weekday afternoon. You know who’s in mall bookstores on weekday afternoons? Not much of anyone. They put me at a table that faced the window from whence shone the afternoon sun, so not only was I alone and bored, I ended up half-blind, too. I think I sold one book.

  • Ron, I think it’s a great horror story idea. And the secret to the deadline thing is set it yourself, but then tell everyone about it, so that you have lots of people asking if you met your deadline….

    Misty, yeah, that sounds like a few of mine. Not so much with the window, but alone, twiddling my thumbs, selling one book, or maybe — MAYBE — two.

  • Sarah

    I know it’s late in the day, but I had to post. I can’t stand That Guy. Especially when he’s not even an author on the panel, he’s a guy in the audience who wants to talk about the book he’s going to write. I mean GEEZ, I’m a chatterbox too, but for goodness sake shut up already. If we wanted to here him talk he’d be on the panel.

  • I have my fingers crossed. But everything I learned this year made me rethink a few story elements (in a good way), so I still have work ahead. I’m more concerned with doing it right than with getting published as soon as I can. I’ve started working on that deadline, at least.

  • Sarah, yes, I hate That Version of That Guy, too. As one who enjoys attention, I understand the impulse. But really, basic social skills are a valuable asset for any writer….

    Moira said “I’m more concerned with doing it right than with getting published as soon as I can.” That’s incredibly wise, Moira. Would that more aspiring writers took the time to get it right with that first submission. Again, wishing you all the best with the project.

  • Young_Writer

    I’ve, of course, never expirenced any of these, but I have to say I broke out laughing when I read number six. People in my school are like that, just over different, more trivial things.