How Not to Be A Diva (A Literary One, That Is)
Almost everyone’s heard stories about “high maintenance authors” who constantly call or write (or both) their editors and publishers, pestering them for money, time, or anything else under the sun. Authors like these are the divas of the literary world, and they aren’t looked upon with favor.
In truth, most professional authors aren’t divas. If they were, they’d never become professionals. Literary divas, no matter how good their writing, often destroy their chances at publication through bridge burning, preening, and defending every little intricacy of their prose. Eventually, no one wants to work with them any longer. Eventually, no one does. After all, editors and publishers are flooded with manuscripts every day. We take work home almost every night and weekend. We can afford to be choosy. We can afford to turn down a “high maintenance author” in favor of one willing to play by our rules.
Below are some tips on how not to be a literary diva. Not being a diva won’t guarantee you literary success, of course, but if you follow the tips below, it will help you become the kind of author agents, editors, and publishers love and love to work with.
1. Be patient. Patience is a virtue, especially in the publishing world where editors and agents are overworked and underpaid. I know it’s difficult to wait for feedback on your work, but we all have to do it. I’m a writer, too, as well as an editor, so I know firsthand. But if you want to succeed, you’re going to have to follow the editor’s timetable, not your own. Learn to accept it and live with it because it comes with the territory.
2. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. Never call an editor unless you’ve been told it’s okay to do so. Be assured that we haven’t lost your phone number (provided you gave it to us, it’s amazing what new writers sometimes forget to include), and we’ll call you if and when we need or want something.
3. Really listen. New writers, if they’re lucky, are going to have to take a lot of editorial direction. Your first inclination, when someone suggests your work is less than perfect, will be to defend it. Don’t. Accept the fact that until you’re a more experienced writer, you’re going to have to bow to your editor’s decisions. When you’re more experienced, you’ll be able to successfully override some of your editor’s suggestions.
4. Do your homework. Never ask an agent, editor, or publisher about a publication’s needs. Actually study the magazine or publishing house you’re querying. Become familiar with their submission guidelines and what kind of material they publish. Take a look at the last few issues as well so you don’t submit a virtual twin of something that was just recently published.
5. Realize you’re going to have to start small. Sure, we’ve all heard stories about first time authors getting paid a million dollar advance. Occasionally, this does happen, but it’s the exception, not the norm. The average writer makes about $4,000 to $7,000/year. Don’t count on paying the bills with your writing, at least not at first. Instead, concentrate on becoming the very best writer you can be.
6. Keep it to yourself. If you don’t like the way a particular editor treats you, try to solve the problem in a calm and honest and private dialogue with that editor. Don’t, don’t, don’t start spreading gossip. You might think the publishing industry is huge, but it’s not. It’s actually quite small and most of us know everyone else. Gossip travels fast and you don’t want to get a bad reputation as being “difficult.”
7. Be an early bird. If you have a deadline to meet, don’t meet it by the skin of your teeth. Send in your manuscript early. You’ll earn lots and lots of “brownie points” with your editor for this.
8. Never kiss up. We aren’t stupid or we wouldn’t be in the publishing industry. We know when you’re being nice to us just because you want a favor. It won’t work for you and will probably work against you, instead.
9. On the other hand, if it’s genuine. If you genuinely feel grateful to an editor, agent, or publisher for something he or she’s done to help you, no matter how small, don’t hesitate to send a thank you note. Make it short, specific, and most of all, sincere. You still may never write a masterpiece or a bestseller, but you will endear yourself to that particular editor, and that’s important because the wider your circle of friends in the publishing world, the better.
10. Network. In general, the larger your network of professional relationships, the faster you can build your career. Just remember that first impressions do count and are often lasting whether deserved or not. Make sure yours is a good one.
11. Be professional. It should go without saying that your work must always be presented in a professional manner, though I'm always amazed at how much sloppy work I receive. You need to be professional as well. If you’re meeting with an editor or publisher, dress conservatively and dress well. If you’re asked to put up a Website to promote your book, make sure it looks as professional as possible. (I’ve seen authors with fantastic Websites and I’ve seen authors with Websites that could most charitably be described as “dreadful.”) Hire a professional to take your photo and remember, you want to look like a serious author, not a sex symbol.
12. Never stop learning. No writer, no matter how great, has ever known all there is to know about the art and craft of fiction writing. Go to conferences, lectures, take classes, read as much as you can, and above all, write. Writing isn’t some magical talent that suddenly manifests itself as soon as you put pen to paper. Writing requires practice. It’s hard work.
13. Join or form a critique group. Honest criticism from other writers is priceless, but make sure each member of the group understands the work of the others and that you all share the same goals. While we need to know what works in our writing, we also need to know what doesn’t work so we can make better informed decisions about what to cut and what not to cut, what to rewrite and what not to touch. Never join a critique group hoping for praise. In fact, encourage the members to be ruthless, but honest, in editing your prose. Realize that criticism of your work is not criticism of you.
14. Stay humble. Ironically, the worst writers always think they’re deities in the literary world, while the best writers know that because much in literature is subjective, success is often hard to measure and define, and that talent, without hard work, an open mind and heart, and a lifetime of learning, is talent wasted. They also realize when they heed honest and sensitive editorial feedback, they’ll grow, not only as writers, but as human beings as well.