Why Manners are Important to You as an Author

Inspired by my friend Jean, who writes the most wonderfully witty posts about Southern manners from time to time, I've decided to write about some things that have been bugging me lately. I've noticed a disturbing lack of social nicety lately, and I think remembering a few manners might help.

Yes, writing is often a solitary pursuit. It's creative and, according to one article, requires the kind of high level concentration that a master chess match might demand. Writing also attracts a lot of introverts, as we are people who would rather play with our imaginary friends than have to talk to our real friends sometimes.

That said, if you are writing in hopes of being published (or if you are published), this is also a business. A BUSINESS. And there are certain ways one behaves in public and when conducting business. It's called manners. You need manners. They don't have to be my Southern manners, but you should have some knowledge at least of business etiquette and how to behave. That said, I give you my top tips for how to behave:

1. Be nice to EVERYONE. No, not just to those people who you think can do something for you. Everyone. I've seen this one a lot, folks, and it isn't pretty. It's not nice to exclude people just because you think they can do you no favors. How do you know that person won't be the bestseller someday? Not only that, but it's just rude to treat people differently because maybe they aren't published and you are. Never make the mistake of thinking someone isn't worth knowing because you can't perceive they have anything to offer you. They do. Everyone does. Take the time to be nice to everyone, and you may learn something.

2. Don't boast. This one fries my bacon. Maybe it's because I'm Southern and I've been raised to think boasting about oneself is impolite. Of course I think you should crow to the rooftops about your contest finals and bestseller list placements! Of course you should celebrate and be happy! I do it too, even though I am often uncomfortable saying, “Lookie here, my book is a bestseller!” But that's a fine achievement and worthy of some snoopy dancing. Heaven knows we get beat up enough in our writing lives not to rejoice a bit when we have the chance. But if you find yourself saying on a daily basis about how fabulous your CPs or editor think you are, or claiming that you are the most innovative thing to come down the pike since Nora Roberts, or constantly needing to one-up your fellow writers with pronouncements about your fabulosity, then you need to step back and remember that nobody likes a braggart. We love to celebrate when someone gets good news, but crow all the time about everything you do and people will start to cringe whenever they see your posts/tweets/blogs, etc. You don't want that. It's hard to be happy for someone who so desperately needs attention that he or she can't shut up about themselves for one damn minute. You might think you're at the center of a stage, clearly the most important person around, but you are deluded. I'm telling you this to do you a favor. You are not super special. Thinking you are will get you in trouble eventually. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but someday. Count on it. Remember that a little humility goes a long way.

3. Don't trash talk about your fellow authors. This one continually amazes me. There's a difference between a critical review (which I am not comfortable doing as an author, but others are and that's fine) and trashing someone because you don't like their book. Never get caught up in this. The internet has a long memory.

4. You should already know this one, but don't argue with reviewers. Ever. If someone hated your book, even if they said mean things, the only appropriate response is either no response or a thank you if you feel inclined to give one. I usually go with no response.

5. You will get asked to do things. Give an answer one way or the other, but don't leave anyone hanging. We often want to do everything we are asked to do, but the truth is we can't. Not if we expect to meet our deadlines and have time with our families. Pick and choose the things you do, and don't be afraid to say no when you don't have time. But always, always do it politely.

6. This applies to the published people — now that you are published, don't make the mistake of thinking you know everything. You probably don't. The newer you are, the more you have to learn. I'm still learning. I can tell you what I know based on my experience – and I do have strong opinions about some things – but I'm not by any means the oracle on the subject. And I don't think I am either. There is no single way to do things.

7. Don't make absolute statements. This kind of goes with making the mistake of thinking you know everything. But telling people things like, “You don't need an agent for category,” or “You absolutely need an agent for single title,” or “Self-publishing is the only way to go,” or “One should never, ever change POV character mid-scene” is really a bit silly. And arrogant. Who died and made you boss? Everyone's experience is different. Now, if you want to say, “I decided I needed an agent for single title because I don't feel capable of negotiating (or want to negotiate) those contracts” or “I personally don't like to change POV characters mid-scene because I think, for me as a reader and/or writer, it's jarring,” then that makes perfect sense. That's your experience.

Okay, this post is getting long enough now, but you can tell I've been thinking a lot about this stuff lately. An unpublished writer told me once that an author who had been snotty to her in her RWA chapter didn't realize that she'd not only lost the writer's respect, but she'd lost her as a reader. This writer will never, ever pick up that author's books. Is it worth losing a potential reader (not to mention a potential friend!) just because you think there's nothing this person can do for you or that they are somehow beneath you? Be nice. It's all you have in the end.

Any bad behavior you'd like to add? Anything that fries your bacon? Any experience you'd like to relate? Any tips you'd give that I left off?

Dear Snooki

I know who you are because you are because you seem to pop up in entertainment news and celebrity gossip quite a lot. I also know that you are a very, very tanned person. So when I read in an article recently that you would never have plastic surgery because you are afraid of needles and anesthetic, I had to shake my head sadly.

Here's the thing, my dear. You are young, in your 20s I think, and so all that tanned skin is quite supple and tight right now. But you just wait. When you hit 35, 40 if you're lucky, you may start to think differently about surgery. Because tanned skin is damaged skin. The only way the skin can react to UV damage is to brown. As brown as you are, that's a whole lot of damage to those delicate cells. It's going to sag, trust me. I've seen it in my tanned friends who looked awesome at 20, and then looked like they were over 50 when they were barely 40.

Your skin is going to sag when the collagen fibers stop doing the job of holding it up, and you may be looking at plastic surgery in a whole new light then.

On the other hand, there's another danger of which you seem either blissfully unaware or you think it won't or can't happen to you. Skin cancer. Tanning beds concentrate the UV light, and more and more younger people are presenting with skin cancers these days. You are dark skinned and have dark eyes and dark hair, but that's not a guarantee, especially the more you subject your skin to intense UV light. It's not just the tanning beds, of course. Sun exposure does the same thing.

And if you do get skin cancer, guess what? Surgery. If you get the worst kind there is, melanoma, the surgeon will need to take margins. You will probably be knocked out for this surgery, though not always. There are definitely needles involved.

Either way, Snooki dear, I think surgery is in your future. I'm sorry you're afraid of needles and anesthetic, but I think you need to realize that if you continue the way you're going, surgery will become a distinct possibility at some point. The damage is already done, considering how brown you are, but I do hope you will think twice about so much tanning. Taking care of your skin now could lessen the impact of the damage. Besides, with your money, can't you afford a really great spray tan?

Plagiarism Redux

I said I was done with the Cassie Edwards portion of this issue, and I am. But over at Dear Author, Janet raises the question about what is and is not plagiarism. It's an interesting question, and one I don't mind thinking about (the comment thread is also good because the hairy specter of fan fiction gets raised, though it doesn't derail the essential issue). Because just yesterday, as I'm working on revisions, I wrote this line: If only there were world enough and time.

And then, because I'm hyper-sensitive to the issue now, I added this: as the poem said. Which seems clunky, but dammit, world enough and time is a phrase from someone else's work. Simply a phrase, but a pretty famous one (not so famous as to be immediately recognizable to all, however, which is where my dilemma stems). From the 17th century, no less, so definitely out of copyright. Some folks have intimated that using sources out of copyright isn't plagiarism, but I think all the English majors (at the very least) who read my line will instantly know where it came from. Maybe they'd get that I know it's a reference. Maybe they'd think I was cribbing.

Truthfully, the line probably won't stay, because the qualifier is going to bug me to no end and I'll decide it isn't worth it in the end. Here are the first few lines from the original, btw:

HAD we but world enough, and time / This coyness, Lady, were no crime / We would sit down and think which way / To walk and pass our long love's day. (Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress.)

I Googled “world enough and time” and Marvell came up instantly. It's four little words, but put together in such a way as to be recognizable. OTOH, in the comment thread to the post up above, people discuss pop culture phrases such as “Here's Johnny!” and “the usual suspects.” What is fair use and what constitutes plagiarism?

Probably, my use of the phrase isn't plagiarism and I can leave off the qualifier. It's a phrase that's moved into the lexicon, just like “we're not in Kansas anymore” and “something's rotten in Denmark” (that last being paraphrased, but recognizable nonetheless) and “sea change.” Probably, because those phrases are so recognizable, everyone knows you aren't plagiarizing but are instead either paying homage or simply using words and phrases that people use in real life because they ARE so recognizable.

But still I second guess my choices. *sigh*

Have you had any second thoughts when you write something lately? If you write historicals, have you gone running to your research books to make sure you haven't inadvertently lifted whole phrases? Have you deleted, reworded, or added qualifiers to protect yourself?