Beware of (not) being yourself

Children quickly discover that the most effective technique for survival involves conforming to their parents’ or caregiver’s values, regardless of whether the adults’ values are healthy or appropriate. Rarely does anyone intervene in a relationship between a parent and a child simply because a child is learning maladaptive behavior. Eventually, without being fully aware of it, most children adopt versions of their parents’ values.

If asked why they’ve embraced certain beliefs, most adults don’t claim to have reasoned things out. Instead, they cite authorities recognized by their social group or, startled, they insist the validity of a particular value system is obvious or ordained. Real awareness of the origins of their beliefs is unusual. Internal conflicts and self-doubt are easily attributed to the harmful influence of unseen spirits or the sordid side of human nature.

No matter how often we’re told that individuality is something to appreciate and that we’re all endowed with the right to be who we really are, conformity is the rule. Ostracism is the penalty for believing a little too eagerly that we can be true to ourselves. Some people can’t handle ostracism. It takes enormous strength and at least a little support from others—affiliation for which a person must qualify with some degree of compliance.

And yet, denying who we really are and what we truly believe is a form of hopelessness. It’s a serpent whose bite is painful and obvious.

We don’t choose either individuality or conformity. We constantly struggle to find a good place between the two. The effort is lifelong, and it never, never gets easier.

This is dedicated to the one…

I’m dedicating this music video to the lovely and poised young woman who introduced herself to me at a writers’ conference. I fear I broke her heart when I told her that Author Solutions, Inc., is sometimes referred to as a vanity press. If I’m lucky, she’ll remember me in the same favorable light as the older woman in this video.

Enjoy “Oopsie Daisy.” It’s cute.

Authors and humility

mask

(Photograph courtesy of Marc Garrido i Puig)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with fashioning your public image the way you want to be perceived as an author, but onlookers are discerning. They know instinctively, often without being able to explain why they know, when someone’s posturing. Americans, especially, are incredibly alert for any hints of pretentiousness and sometimes go overboard by openly demanding self-effacement, which we equate with graciousness. One result is the defensive tactic so well known to authors: the humblebrag.

The only way to avoid jumping straight into harm’s way is to learn how to get outside yourself and view your own public image through the eyes of readers, followers, colleagues, and friends. Silently noticing what other authors do wrong and right can help. Friends and family aren’t likely to give you honest criticism, because they all love you and fear ruining their relationships with you.

We’re living in a moment when genuineness, transparency, and humility are valued more than poise and sophistication, but cultural preferences eventually will change. They always do.

Fear of exposure

I can’t count the times I’ve seen some great writing online but haven’t been able to reach the author, because the person’s email address wasn’t listed anywhere. A writer who wants to turn professional needs to provide some very straightforward biographical and contact information on his or her primary website. The writer’s most effective business card is the site used as a hub for the person’s online identity and writing-related activities.

For the sake of being taken seriously, a writer’s professional email address should use the writer’s professional name or business name. It’s possible to set up multiple email addresses for different purposes and direct all the email for those addresses to a single email inbox. Instructions for accomplishing this will vary depending on the email application being used.

It’s silly for a new author to make it difficult for a book reviewer, reporter, or event organizer to get in touch, yet many writers seem purposefully aloof online. They haven’t make the transition into the public sphere, where their potential readers might be found. Ridiculously, some of them are the same writers who, cloaked with anonymity, blame everyone but themselves for their failures at getting published, soliciting reviews, selling their books, and generating income. (Of course, being publicly obnoxious will have the same self-defeating results. Have they already realized something about themselves that’s better left hidden?)

Concerns about privacy are no small thing, but the ability of an author to attract publicity has a direct affect on the discoverability and sales of the author’s book. A book publisher can’t compensate for an author’s inability to connect to readers, or for the author’s inaccessibility to reporters, book critics, bloggers, librarians, producers, and event organizers who would help make those connections. Privacy has always been a tradeoff for fame.

peeking

(Photo courtesy of Ned Horton, Horton Web Design, Nashville, TN)

Looking for a writers’ conference in the Carolinas?

I’ll be participating in two writers’ conferences next month: one in Columbia, South Carolina, and one in Charlotte, North Carolina. Sponsored by the organizer of the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop (SCWW) and the Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop, the day-long events in the Carolinas will provide an overview of your book publishing options today, with an emphasis on traditional publishing.

Also scheduled to meet with authors on April 17 and 18 during the 2015 Carolina Writing Workshops:

Cherry Weiner, Cherry Weiner Literary Agency

Diana Flegal, Hartline Literary

Kristy Huddle, Comfort Publishing (only in Charlotte)

Melissa Jeglinski, The Knight Agency

Sam Morgan, Jabberwocky Literary Agency

Chuck Sambuchino

Chuck Sambuchino

The star of the show will be workshop instructor, editor, author, and playwright Chuck Sambuchino, the man who knows how to bring out the best in aspiring authors who are learning to present their ideas to agents and publishers. For years, Chuck has been keeping writers informed with his Guide to Literary Agents Blog and directory.

My favorite part of the upcoming workshops is the Chapter One Critique-Fest, which actually will be a first-page critique of anonymously submitted writing. I’m always pleasantly surprised by agents’ and editors’ concurrence of opinions during these sessions. The manuscript samples that are read aloud can give writers a valuable sense of the competition they face even at beginning levels.

I’m looking forward to meeting you in Columbia or Charlotte. Come prepared to talk about yourself and your writing. I’ll be more than happy to answer your questions about my work as a literary agent, too. See you next month!

Writers who take the initiative gain an advantage

It’s difficult for new writers to comprehend that having a literary agent doesn’t mean the end of all rejections. When I’m able to persuade an acquiring editor to read a manuscript, the writer continues to face considerable competition. At the major U.S. publishing houses, each acquiring editor opts to read perhaps fifty or more manuscripts per year and selects from them maybe five or fewer that are published.

Lately, when manuscripts of equal quality are being evaluated, one factor that tends to tip the scales in favor of an acquisition is the author’s ability to help promote the title before and after it’s published. Publishers aren’t impressed with earnest promises; before investing, they look at what an author already has done to become familiar and interesting to readers.

Six years ago, when I started my agency, consideration of an author’s platform wasn’t as prevalent among publishers, but aspiring authors were learning how to use social media to their advantage. Now that a good percentage of creative writers are entrepreneurial, many editors view the absence of a platform (or the lack of an established readership, or name recognition, or whatever you choose to call it) as an additional reason to disqualify a manuscript and move on to those that have more potential to be profitable.

Some writers simply aren’t good at self-promotion, and it’s not something anyone can do for them. On the other hand, when a publicist at a publishing house and an author are able to collaborate easily—when they’re on the same page, so to speak, and the publicist doesn’t need to do much explaining—a successful book marketing campaign is far more likely.

Some writers excel at self-promotion, but their manuscripts aren’t superlative. What then? Is it easier and more cost-effective to fix an imperfect manuscript or to teach a writer how to make connections with readers? The jury’s still out on that question. I suspect that by the time I’m reading a query from an aspiring author, the individual already has reached his or her peak performance in both arenas and won’t be able to show much improvement. In other words, earnest promises don’t impress me. Evidence of self-initiative does.

Walt Whitman

(Detail of the entrance to the Detroit Public Library)

Why blog, when you can shoot yourself in the foot?

laptop and cell phone

(Photo courtesy of Jonathan Velasquez)

A writer friend who’s been blogging for as long as I have—almost eight years—wonders about recent claims that blogs are old hat. In view of the popularity of Pinterest, Tumblr, and sites like Facebook that facilitate simple sharing, is creating new content actually necessary?

It depends on the user. Is the user a writer?

Our blogs and websites are becoming our professional portfolios. They’re our marketing collateral. We can make them into whatever works for our particular professions. For example, a photographer could post thousands of words and still never convey to her prospective clients what one sample portrait or piece of photojournalism on her website could demonstrate about her talent. Likewise a fashion designer. Or a dog groomer. Creative writers, on the other hand, need to show that they can write. Words. Not shared videos or Instagram snapshots.

The person who holds a factory job on an assembly line or drives a truck or teaches school doesn’t need to use a blog or another form of social media to attract business or establish professional credibility. A bartender isn’t required to know how to take a great photo or write a poignant essay or design a kickass steampunk wedding gown. Most people need social media only to connect and communicate with other people socially. Sharing a 140-word tweet or a bad selfie or a book review written by a critic is more than sufficient to make those human connections and stimulate the type of small talk that would happen in real life.

A creative writer’s objectives include attracting readers, something a blog is designed to enable. Beyond blogging, in order to be seen as a professional in what amounts to the entertainment industry, a creative writer needs to reach the largest possible audience and should communicate in a variety of the media his or her audience uses. Every ambitious online literary journal now links to the journal’s blog, Facebook page, Twitter stream, Instagram, Tumblr, and sometimes a Pinterest board or other social media. Book publishers aren’t far behind. Each professional writer these days has the ability to do the same amount of outreach that publishers are doing.

Competitors are using the best available resources to make themselves discoverable. A creative writer who chooses not to is at a completely voluntary disadvantage. Would anyone who’s been blogging for eight years care to listen to someone complain about shortcomings… that are self-imposed? Please, don’t get me started.

Must self-interest and distrust make us inhumane?

Am I overly sensitive to people’s selfishness? Or is a greedy attitude overtaking Americans this year because we feel our lifestyles (or our aspirations) have been threatened for far too long by a poor economy? Can pushing aside the concerns of entire groups of people because of their ethnicity or perceived status actually help us feel powerful and righteous?

Part of our animal nature makes us pigs at a trough—each squealing and rooting to get to the slop, heedless of the weaker ones, and oblivious to our ugliness.

However, as human beings, we are not completely ruthless in our determination to thrive. It’s wrong to believe that our natural state of mind is to lack empathy for people of other cultures, races, and economic strata. Our minds and hearts are much more complicated than that.

True, it’s not as easy for us to feel empathy for people who are different, because our overriding initial response to them is fear. From an evolutionary perspective, our fear is useful. It makes sense. Yet, if we have even a little time to get to know someone who is different, the fear often dissipates, and then we can feel empathy naturally.

What we cannot do, unless we’re psychopaths, is handle the cognitive dissonance that results from harming another human being when we really don’t need to—in an immediate, literal sense. If we’re put into the situation of doing harm to someone, we quickly rationalize in order to eliminate the cognitive dissonance and feel good about ourselves. In other words, we make up a story the way a toddler would. To onlookers whom we haven’t recruited to our self-righteous worldview, our story is about as convincing as a child’s.

Balancing our opposing natures is not easy. It’s a challenging, often frustrating, lifelong endeavor to know ourselves. The importance of making the attempt is why one of the criteria I use for selecting new clients is a writer’s skill at presenting ideas that bring people together and help them understand each other.

If you share an interest in recognizing our common humanity, I invite you to attend the first U.S. screening of Riccardo Valsecchi‘s documentary film Schwarzkopf BRD at the Bat Haus in Bushwick, Brooklyn, on February 10, 2015, at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are free. Watch for it on the Bat Haus Film Club‘s Facebook page. There’s also an Indiegogo campaign underway.

More on this topic

I can’t link you directly to Philosophy Talk Podcast 361: Humanity Violated (featuring David Livingstone Smith), which you can buy from iTunes. Smith makes the argument that dehumanization soothes people’s guilty consciences.

In the podcast, host Ken Taylor asks Smith about the process of dehumanization:

If I could just get….an evildoer to see, “Oh, that’s a human being you’re doing that to! That’s a fellow human being you’re doing that to”—and they could see it—do you think all this would stop? I’m not convinced that if I could just see that the “other” was a human being like me it would make all this stuff go away. What do you think?

Smith answers:

It would not make all this stuff go away. People would find other ways to solve the problem—the problem being overcoming inhibitions against harming others.

This, I believe, is one of the many tendencies we need to understand about ourselves.