When you’re a new writer you’re very afraid. You worry. You’re putting in all this time, you’re putting in so much mental and creative energy, and likely the folks around you in physical space kind of admire that in a vague way but they have no real idea what it is you’re trying to do or what you’re facing. But you could grind your self to nothing writing and writing and come up empty–no sales, or maybe a couple sales, but let’s be honest, just between you and me, you dream big. Don’t you.
And if you’re serious, and do your research–start watching the field, keeping an eye on who’s editing what, what they like, what they don’t like, in that last interview did they mention something they wished they’d see in slush that you can turn into a story that will surely knock their socks off and get you an acceptance?–if you’re paying attention (and you should, I recommend it) you see just how small the field is.
And editors seem like gods. They hold the keys to everything you want. Or that’s what it seems like. One of the first, most basic lessons you learn–or should, anyway–is how to handle dealing with editors. Follow the guidelines! Learn proper manuscript format! Learn to write the proper sort of cover letter! Never argue with a rejection! And all of that is good advice.
But the flip side of that is fear that if you somehow piss off the editor, you will never work in this town again. Anxiety that if you italicize instead of underline in your ms formatting, or if you make one step wrong in your cover letter, that’s it, baby, rejection city. And I don’t think I’ve ever met a writer who didn’t at one point or another spend serious time going back and forth over whether they ought to send a query about a story that had been on submission an unreasonable amount of time. When that’s a perfectly fine thing to do, to ask if the story you submitted three years ago (or whatever) actually made it there? Or was it still under consideration? Or had the editor responded but the response got lost somehow? When by and large, most editors don’t mind getting these at all. After all, sometimes subs get lost, or fall between the cracks. Sometimes responses do get lost. Sometimes editors take a long time, and if it happens a lot at a given venue, you maybe want to think how long of an average wait you’re willing to deal with, right? But just a polite “hey did my sub get there & is it still there? Thanks!” isn’t the least bit offensive. (Well, it’s offensive the day after you sub, or any time within reasonable return times, and of course what those reasonable times are changes from editor to editor, but you’ve been doing your research, right? There are resources for that.)
Most editors will tell you straight up that there’s no reason to be afraid of them. They’re perfectly fine to deal with.
But there are always a few. A few who enjoy that power dynamic a bit too much. The ones who tell you that if you don’t do things the way they want, or write the kind of things they want you to, you’ll never have a career. The ones who publish you a few times and then assume you owe them loyalty beyond the first rights to the stories you sold them, and who make dire pronouncements about your disloyalty ultimately wrecking your career, you ungrateful wretch, why, I’m the reason you’re where you are today! The ones who respond with abuse when you ask to be paid–you greedy person, don’t you know the editor/publisher has bills to pay, and terrible financial problems???
And there are writers like this, too, writers who appear to think that ruthlessly networking will get them the career (or the prestige) they want. I’m not talking about people who enjoy or are good at networking and the social stuff. I’m talking about people who put major energy into associating with the right people (or at the very least, looking as though they do), and throw anyone else under the bus. Someone who looks like they’re pals with big names, well, maybe if you tick them off you’ll ruin your prospects! You won’t–but a certain sort of person would like you to think that.
There are always a few. But I’m here to tell you that barring really outrageously obviously bad behavior–and sometimes not even then–no one’s going to blacklist you. No one person holds the keys to your potential career. Anyone who tells you they do is lying, and trying to manipulate you. Run. Do not deal with such people.
In fact, by and large the people who tell you how much power they have (or imply strongly they have some sort of power to hurt or help you) are actually not all that powerful. Oh they want to be, you bet, and to that end they’re going to use any tool at their disposal to convince you of their power and manipulate you into helping them get more, (and some of them are very, very good at doing that) but ninety percent of the time someone says something like “if you cross me your career is over” or suggests that the way to get ahead is to curry favor with them, that person is generally no more than a medium sized frog in a very small mudpuddle. (They don’t want you to look past the edges of their puddle, no, to see how small it is, and how insignificant compared to the pond that’s a few meters away. They want you to think their puddle is the pond. And it’s so hard to have perspective, when you’re new and anxious. Medium Frog knows this, uses it for their own benefit.)
And anybody pulling that shit, you don’t need. Zines come and go. Editors move around. It’s rare that a story can’t possibly sell to anyplace but Grandiose Editor’s Power Trip Quarterly. I know when you’re new, anyone ahead of you on the track, or in an editorial position, seems like they have so much power, but honestly, you don’t need them. Walk away, do not buy into that bullshit.
Now, it sometimes happens that an individual editor has a problem with a particular writer–the writer has treated them badly, been a jackass to them, or done something else the editor can’t stomach, and can’t separate from the writer’s work. You can argue all you want that an editor should only be about the work, but people don’t reliably function that way. But you know what? There are other editors who have a different relationship with that writer, or are adamant about that separation of art and artist and don’t care if a writer ate live kittens in front of small weeping children every Sunday morning for the past month. They’ll publish the work of that person, provided they think it’s good enough.
You, new writer, do not eat live kittens. Whatever your supposed transgression–wanting to be paid in a timely fashion, or at all? Not jumping to back or promote someone’s kickstarter? Daring to contradict or disagree with an editor in public? Refusing a request that you take advantage of some connection you have to blatantly further someone’s career?***–they do not even approach the sort of behavior that leads well-intentioned editors to ponder the difference between art and artist and just how they’ll handle that. You won’t be blacklisted for any of that. Your career is not on the line over it. Don’t believe anyone who tells you it is. And notice it’s always the person who wants something from you (free stories, free labor, emotional or otherwise, career advancement, obedience generally) who’s feeding you that line.
Oh, and big name writers can’t sink or make your career either. Trust me on this.
I’ll tell you honestly, there are some people in the field who I do not want to work with, for various reasons, some of which are personal and idiosyncratic. I’d bet nearly everyone has a list of such names (though generally not a formal list, right? But you know who you really don’t want to deal with) and the fact that the list exists tells you that those people are still working. They don’t need me. They’re doing perfectly fine. This fact does not bother me.
I’ll be honest, I am not down for calls to close anyone out of the field for bad behavior. I mean, for myself, bad enough, or bad in specific ways, and yeah, I don’t want to work with you. Maybe quite a few people don’t. But it’s not my call to make for anyone but me, nor should it be. No one should have that power, to shut anyone out of SFF. Behave badly enough and quite a few editors will prefer not to work with you–but that’s not the same as a field-wide blacklist, and I don’t think there should be one. Ever. Each editor gets to make the call for their venue, end of story. And yes, there will be editors who are all about the purity of art apart from artist, editors who don’t care one way or the other about kittens. You may disagree with those editors’ decisions, but they get to make that choice. You may prefer on balance not to work with such editors–again, that’s your call. You choose where to submit, and you get to have whatever reasons you want for that choice.
I am down for being open about serious problems, though. Someone who’s a really bad actor, who’s strewn destruction in their wake? Yeah, let’s know about that. We can all make our decisions about how to react to that, going forward. Concealing things to whisper networks and private chats just lets the bad actor continue to harm the unwarned.
At any rate, when most editors say that if they had a choice between two equally good writers, they’d rather work with the one who isn’t a jackass, they don’t mean writers who aren’t sufficiently deferential when asking “how high?” or writers who have the audacity to disagree with them about something. Or, editors worth working with don’t. They mean the actual, real jackasses, people who have caused honest to goodness harm to others.
The fact that those people–and if you’re paying attention, which as a serious new writer you have been, you can probably think of one or more–can in fact still sell stories should be a sign to you that you, who have merely had the bad grace to demand to be paid for your work, or to be treated with respect, or have refused to agree that when you signed over first rights to a couple of stories you also signed over your soul and perpetual loyalty, will be okay.
This is, incidentally, a small part of why I’m so adamant about not worrying so much about what everyone tells you you’ve got to do (or not do) in order to be published–what sort of thing to write, or how, or how long, or with what structure, or whatever. I think it feeds into a kind of anxiety about whether or not you’re ticking off the right list items, and they all seem so minor and arbitrary and yet there they are, the things you need to do to succeed! It’s not a big step to add other things to that list (never disagree with an editor, never even mildly annoy big names in the field, never question weird things in the contract, never complain never never never), and it’s so, so easy for a manipulative, abusive asshole to use all of that to twist you in knots. But all you need is your writing. No guarantees, right? There never are. But that’s all you need, you don’t need to contort your work into the One True Form, you don’t need to take a particular path, you don’t need to avoid themes and motifs that are of deep personal interest to you because “readers/editors won’t like it,” and you don’t need that asshole trying to convince you of their power. Better, in my opinion, to go into the game knowing you can do it on your own terms.
No one person has the power to destroy your career. I’m not joking about this. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise, tell them to fuck off. Break off contact, don’t work with them.
You don’t need them. All you need is you and your writing. Just do the writing, and send it out. It’ll be okay.
***Just to remove all ambiguity, none of these things are actually transgressions. They are all perfectly reasonable things to do when the situation calls for them.
Clarification: October 18, 2016
I would like to clear up a thing that might be ambiguous in this post: For any writer who has found themselves ensnared by someone setting themselves up as being able to make or break them, to blacklist them–it was not your fault. You did nothing wrong. Folks who successfully pull this sort of power trip are very, very convincing, and manipulative as hell. They take skillful advantage of the idea that one can be blacklisted, of the social connections in the field, of your willingness to trust, to help others, to be kind, to be grateful to people who help you. All good qualities that they twist for their own ends. It’s them, not you.