So…Who’s the Asshole?

angry-computer-guySomebody I know recently brought to my attention an email. I have to change the name and specific content to protect the innocent, but here’s an approximation.

The email was sent from an author to an editor, and it proceeded thusly.


Dear Editor,

You are a dick. I sent you my manuscript more than a year ago and I haven’t heard back from you yet. I’m gonna self publish my Work of Utter Genius and become a millionaire. Remember, my work is copyrighted. If your plan is to steal it and self-publish the stuff for profit, I own your ass. Go soak your head in a bucket of wombat urine. 

Love and Kisses,


All of my friends who are agents and editors are sharing this around, saying “Dude, what a dick Author is. Let’s none of us ever do business with Author. Screw that guy.”

And they’re right. That kind of abuse and unprofessional behavior (I’m paraphrasing, but the original wasn’t much better) is unacceptable in any craft or trade. Dude broke the rules of basic courtesy, and the rules of observing chain of command (editors outrank authors). He even broke the basic rule of knowing how to talk to people in a position to do you favors.

So yeah, he’s an asshole.

But on the other hand…

A year without contact is a long time. A looooooong time to an author who’s waiting to hear whether or not an editor is interested in publishing the written distillation of his heart, hopes and dreams. I can understand being frustrated, even angry, even though I can’t condone how he chose to express it.

This goes double for the agents and editors who (a) ask you not to send in simultaneous submissions and (b) have a policy of only responding on acceptance. Those guys are being serious assholes. I mean, really. What reasonable human says “Please don’t ask anybody else to the prom until you hear back from me, but I won’t answer at all if I’m gonna say no and maybe wait half a year before I say yes” ?!?!?!?

But that’s what a lot of agents and editors are saying.

So they’re kind of being assholes, too.

But do you know who’s the biggest asshole here?

Us. People. Human beings.

You. And me.

Once upon a time, agents and editors could respond quickly enough to not be assholes. The publishing industry made enough money across the board that agencies weren’t understaffed, and publishers had robust catalogs.

Then we discovered self-publishing and ebooks. And we started reading less and Netflixing more. We forgot much of our love affair with the written word, and started downloading the books we did read. Publishing suffered. Publishers had to cut catalogs. Agencies had to cut staff.

So now we’re in this situation where agents need months to respond to the massive deluge (over 100 per week, according to folks I know) of manuscript submissions they get. That means they can’t respond to your novel query in anything resembling a reasonable frame of time. It means the best way to get your novel read quickly is to meet an agent via pitch sessions, at a bar, or through social engineering. It means they have no choice but to act like assholes sometimes because the resources aren’t there to give them any other option.

It’s not anybody’s particular fault, but we’re in an untenable situation.

  • Agents don’t have the resources to respond to every submitter with anything resembling reasonable courtesy
  • Authors have to wait unreasonable times, which makes them whiny

What’s worse is we can’t do anything about it….other than remember with compassion what it’s like for the other side.


What’s Your Test of Humanity?

Alert readers have probably figured out by now that I’m a huge nerd.

As a huge nerd, like all nerds, I read Dune. I loved Dune. Early in Dune, protagonist Paul Atraedes takes the Gom Jabbar Test of Humanity. It works like this.

Step One: Make a high tech box that, if one puts a hand in the box, stimulates the nerves so that the hand feels just like it’s being burnt to the bone…though no damage is actually done.

Step Two: Take a subject (in this case Paul Atraedes). Explain exactly what the box does. Make certain the subject knows that no matter what the hand feels like, no harm is being done.

Step Three: Tell the subject to put a hand in the box.

Step Four: Kill the subject (in this case using a needle full of cyanide called the Gob Jabbar) if the hand comes out of the box before a certain time has passed.

The Bene Gesserit (notable authors of the Litany Against Fear and sundry galaxy-spanning conspiracies) use the Test of Humanity to tell if somebody can place their awareness and rational thought above their natural instincts. Can you let pain happen to your hand because you know it’s not being hurt? If so, the Bene Gesserit consider you human. If not, well…it’s cyanide and tsk tsk.

This got me to thinking…

What was your Gom Jabbar Test of Humanity?

Part of being a grown-ass, adult human is being able to take your lizard brain and tell it to sit the hell down and shut the hell up. It happens when a customer at work is less than polite, when your romantic partner is less than kind, when your kids are less than responsible. It’s part of grown-up life, so much so that most of us just do it automatically as part of our daily responsibilities.

But lots of us can think back and remember the first time (or one of the first times) we successfully did it when it was really, really hard.

That one time, often in our early 20s, when we wanted to rage or cry or snark or fight…but knew we shouldn’t. Then we made the conscious decision to keep our hands in the box of pain and, as the Bene Gesserit witches might say, choose to be a human being. 

Chances are you weren’t having your hand burnt to a crisp, and you probably didn’t have a poison needle against your neck (either that, or your life is way, way more interesting than mine). Chances are you were dealing with something other people might have found boring. But you didn’t find it boring. You found it stressful, emotionally fraught, painful, maybe humiliating.

But you held it together.

You chose to be a human being.

So I ask you:

  1. What was your Test of Humanity?
  2. Afterward, how did passing help you deal with the next challenge in your life? And the next?

We’re all of us way more powerful than we suspect. My Test of Humanity (and some harder tests later in my life) help me to remember that when the next bad stretch hits. Have you thought about yours?

Where to Begin?

This past month I’ve made contact with a few writers/prospective writers. They’re way smarter than me (not a difficult task) but still stuck in the “wish I could write for a living” stage. From my experiences at conferences, they’re not alone.

The biggest, hardest question most ask is about how to get started. It’s easy for me to make a living at this point — I have a bank of clients, a good reputation and a solid portfolio. If you’re just getting started, maybe these steps will help. Continue reading

Why Orange is the New Black Sucks

download (4)I don’t have to tell any of you what Orange is the New Black is. (If I do, go do some research. I’ll wait.)

The first season was interesting. I watched the fuck out of it in two binge sessions, in part over respect for the book, in part for Captain Janeway, in part for the objective quality of the story and production.

But then it started to suck. And why it sucks is an important thing for writers to learn from.

Thing is, as the second and third (and fourth) seasons developed, they gave us insights into the backgrounds and lives of the (at least from the perspective of the first season) secondary characters. This wasn’t a bad idea exactly, but the execution was a problem.

I’ve seen this problem before. I might have mentioned once or twice how I’m an avid player of role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons and GURPS. For those who don’t know, those games often simulate combat. Some folks say they want those rules to be as realistic as possible. I disagree, because “roll to see if you pee yourself” isn’t fun for anybody. The rules should instead create an entertaining illusion.

Too much realism makes entertainment not entertaining.

In the case of Orange is the New Black, they overcorrected toward realism with the stories of those secondary characters. Occasionally interesting and relatable people end up in prison. Most of the time, though, inmates tend to be kind of stupid, kind of mean, and really boring.

Which describes all of the characters we’ve been exploring in the subsequent seasons of Orange. They made the characters too damn realistic. They made them like (unusually attractive) inmates. Stupid. Mean. Boring.

Not folks I’m going to relate to. Not folks I’m likely to root for.

Rory Miller, a man I deeply respect and actively like, wrote Violence: A Writer’s GuideIt’s a solid work on some of the realities of violence, and important for people who think they know violence to understand. It dives deep into the yucky of that world, and does provide excellent insight into the psychology of violence and of violence professionals. A writer who wants to write the motivations of criminals and cops well should read this book.

On the other hand, his advice on how to write violent scenes makes the same mistake. Realistically written violence isn’t entertaining. Writing violence well consists of myriad small skills, very few of which are related to writing a realistic scene.

Which brings me back to Orange.

The stories they tell touch on some important social issues, in a highly visible way that might actually change some minds or at least raise awareness. And if that’s their plan, then the realistic portrayals of these unfortunates might be exactly what’s called for.

But as writers, our job is to entertain. Even if we’re making a point. Entertaining stories grab more readers. Convert more thoughts. Engage more people. Don’t make the mistake of making realism more important than entertainment.

The Terrible Toll of the Treadmill

For almost all of live your dreamus, there comes a time when we end up on the treadmill. The gerbil wheel. The Sisyphean slope. That point in our lives where we are working hard, fully engaged and in motion, but not actually going anywhere.


Are you now (or have you ever been) frequently saying or thinking things like…

  • This gig is a dead-end street
  • I need a change but I don’t know what, or how
  • There’s no room for promotion here
  • I’d be doing great if I just had X more bucks or Y more hours each month
  • Fuck six blue ducks, but I hate my life

The treadmill is often frustrating, rarely rewarding, energy-consuming and more boring than Ben Stein at a stranger’s wedding telling you about this crazy dream he had. But – and here’s the insidious evil of the treadmill – it has just enough advantages to keep you on it.

You’re getting some exercise. We use regular treadmills because they let us run or walk to get healthier. The repetition of most treadmill gigs means you’re getting practice at one skill or another, eating up those 10,000 hours towards mastery.

Routine is comforting…and we love to be comfortable. Even for adventurous types, doing the same predictable thing for the same predictable paycheck cuts our stress. For some people, this is even more important than being challenged or fulfilled.

You’re getting paid. A “goodnuff” job at a “goodnuff” wage is what a lot of people have to live with because they have broader responsibilities or narrower options. We enjoy eating food and sleeping indoors, and a treadmill gig can help us do that.

I spent two years on a treadmill called Demand Studios. This company made money via a combination of gaming Google’s search algorithms and not-quite-lying about their profits for an eventual IPO. The work was boring and the pay just a nudge above insulting by professional standards. I usually love my editors, even (especially) the ones who push me. But editors there would tell me things like “Bruce Lee isn’t relevant to ab workouts” or “This article is about the United States. Don’t write about New Mexico.”

It was a treadmill, but at the time we had just had a baby and The Artist Formerly Known As My Wife suffered health complications that took her out of the contribution equation for half of the first year. What I needed was a comforting, low-stress, low-effort, reliable gig that paid the bills. By the time she was able to work in and out of the house, I’d fallen into that soporific routine and stayed there even when I should have been growing myself as a coach, speaker and writer.

As I discovered, and I imagine most of you know, the treadmill has problems that come along with the things it does all right.

You don’t grow new skills. I got great at writing 500-word online articles, but I didn’t learn how to write longer pieces, or humor, or speeches or white papers. A treadmill gig at a call center builds patience and communication skills, but won’t move you closer to your dream of owning the world’s funniest T-shirt company.

They eat up just that much time so you don’t have the energy or opportunities to pursue other avenues. I made okay money at Demand Studios, but would have been better off spending some of that earning time building other assets. Ask anybody who works at Home Depot or waiting tables “just until that big break” how absolutely true this is.

Comforable is just an inch away from complacent. Treadmills become ruts really fast. If you stay on one long enough, you find the habits and skills that help you get off of them have atrophied. You become addicted to the comfort, safety and routine. I stayed with that content mill for a year after I needed it, and everybody who’s ever waited tables knows that one 60-year-old who never got around to doing something else.

What if the treadmill breaks? “Steady jobs” are no more stable or dependable than freelance gigs. If your meal ticket stops paying out, you are screwed. When Google bitch-slapped Demand Studios, the whole thing came falling down. I was lucky to have found some other, better clients or I might be working a real job right no. When the mill closes down, this is exactly what happens.

If you want to be the person you wish you were, you must get off the treadmill.

"Please, do as they say! Get off the...treadmill!"

“Please, do as they say! Get off the…treadmill!”

Treadmills give you just enough reward and give an illusion of reduced risk to stay tempting even when you know you should get off. But you want to get off, or you wouldn’t still be reading this.