Behaving in a professional manner, for writers, is really quite easy. Professional behavior basically means writing publishable work, meeting deadlines, not plagiarizing, and not libeling anyone with one’s work. The problem with discussions of professional behavior is that this brief list really is pretty much it, and if one is not yet writing publishable work then none of the rest matters. Well, that’s no way to become a publishing guru, or to sell aspiring writers all sorts of goods and services! And so was born “professionalism” which is running especially rampant in the field of science fiction and fantasy.
Professionalism is a complex of supposedly mandatory and proscribed behaviors that makes a writer “professional” regardless of their ability to write interesting material. Recently, at a science fiction convention I met a former student of mine, and he was very concerned about…his blog. Which he does not have. He was told, however, that today professional writers must all blog, but that these blogs must not offer up controversial political opinions, or negative reviews of popular books, or “ruffle feathers.” Everything must be “politically correct” he believed—to use that famously meaningless term I try so hard to get my students to stop using. I’d told the class Ronald Sukenick’s famous dictum, Use your imagination, or someone else will use it for you over and over. Maybe one day it’ll stick. So, what to blog about? he wondered. What does a professional blog look like, and how does it lead to publishing deals? I recommended that he concentrate on finishing his book first, and making sure it was as good as it could be.
A few weeks later, at a different convention, the mildest of acquaintances fell into my arms, chagrined that she was drunk at a party, and that some editor or agent might also be at the same party. She’d already ruined herself professionally, and it was only Friday! Ah yes, a writer who enjoys a drink at a party. Very unprofessional; unheard of, really. Editors would surely be scandalized by the sight, had any actually been in a room and not themselves inebriated.
My two poor friends were much more concerned with “professionalism” than with professional behavior.
Why would someone want to be a professional writer? Rejection is constant, cash flow unpredictable, audiences fickle, and the publishing industry is falling apart. It’s easy enough to write for one’s own edification, or for some non-commercial community, if personal expression is one’s goal. There’s only one real reason to write professionally—no boss! All you need is professional behavior. Professionalism, by way of contrast, makes everyone a writer’s boss. Every Facebook friend, Twitter follower, newspaper reader, and book buyer is one’s employer, and what do they pay? Royalties on a hardcover are what, ten percent of cover price? Two dollars and fifty cents, payable somewhere between eighteen months and three years after the purchase of a book, and that’s if one’s publisher doesn’t go bankrupt. At least my real boss could rook me out of tens of thousands of dollars a year, and he doesn’t read my blog or check to see if I’m wearing dress shoes to work.
Few writers would care about the demands and declarations of these new bosses—tweet this, don’t talk about that, how dare you not like Dr. Who!—except that so many beginning writers themselves have joined the cult of professionalism and have begun to police one another. Not only do they believe in the supposed rules of professionalism themselves, they propagate the nonsense through their own social networking. It’s all rather nightmarish: don’t complain about rejection letters or reviews, don’t talk about editors and agents on Twitter or your blog, wear khakis and not blue jeans to conferences and bring plenty of business cards, keep away from politics except for the fannishly correct (and legitimate) concerns about diversity in publications in your public utterances. This advice is the new currency in the community of aspiring writers because it’s easy to give and easy to follow. What’s hard is writing.
And those are the at least reasonable demands of professionalism. I’ve heard people earnestly report that they never use American flag stamps when mailing submissions because liberal editors may take such stamps as a conservative political statement. I’ve eavesdropped on serious discussions about the userids of one’s “professional” email address; don’t use hyphens or underscores between first name and last! There are writers who hate writing short stories, but write and try to publish them anyway because it’s “expected” (by whom?) and to “build their brand.” (Brand of what? Crappy writer?) I’ve lost track of the number of blog posts I’ve read that warn in a little preface of ranting and possibly losing friends and letting it all hang out…that turn into a jeremiad against, say, littering. Nothing controversial, remember! (On the other hand, blogging requests for people to act as personal unpaid valets during a convention appearance is not only “professional”, it’s in vogue.) My favorite is the person who somehow decided that it would be “unprofessional” to strike up a conversation with a certain editor at a writer’s conference—instead he just followed her around all weekend, hoping that she’d eventually turn around at some point and say hello.
It’s also worth noting that these rules regarding professionalism often only go one way—feel free to mock, insult, sneer at, or slander someone not in a position to help your career. Say, someone who is just as poorly published as you are, or someone who currently only edits work in translation and thus isn’t in a position to buy a short story or acquire a book.
Now some elements of professionalism have merit. Whining about negative reviews and rejection letters is unattractive, though nobody has ever been harmed by doing so, not even when every fan in the blogosphere swore to never buy a book by Anne Rice or Alice Hoffman or whomever ever again. You certainly shouldn’t send anyone threatening letters, but that’s true whether you want to be a writer or not. But here’s the dirty little secret about all the rest of it, speaking as an editor and the friend and colleague of many other editors. If your Twitter account is named JoeBlowWriter or we see a Facebook friend request from someone named JaneDoe_Author, we cringe. We laugh at “official” websites—get enough fans that someone makes an unofficial one and then we might care. We’re not concerned if you pumped your fist when Osama bin Laden was assassinated, or if you like to dress in short skirts. Your bookmarks and business cards generally tend toward the amateurish, and are rather secondary anyway. When the conventions are over, 95 percent of them go right into the trash. If we want to contact you, it’s generally pretty easy to figure out how to do so…even if you put an underscore between your first and last names in your email address. Here is what we care about:
Can you write well? I mean, really write well. Note, not write well enough—we have plenty of folks who can do that, and they’ll change their names every five years on command and write whatever we like, to order. Can you write well?
Are you ready to say “Yes” to a solicitation? Not “Maybe.” Not “But I don’t know if I’m any good at that”, but “Yes”?
Can you meet a deadline?
You know, not professionalism. Professional behavior.