‘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