Planting the Decision Tree

Monica Valentinelli is an author who lurks in the dark. Recently, she released a science fiction novella titled “Redwing’s Gambit” which was based on the Bulldogs! RPG. She has over a dozen short stories published and two novellas with more on the way. For more about Monica and her work visit her website.

At some point in your career, you’re going to get some advice on what to do with your written works or your future as an author. Maybe the suggestions will originate from a peer or your mentor. Maybe it’s from an old teacher or a friend of yours. Maybe you spot something on a website just like this.

Getting inundated with advice isn’t always a good thing, because often pieces will conflict with one another or worse – derail you from your current manuscript. This article is geared to help you keep your focus on the page and weigh the benefits of what recommendations you encounter.

Here are a few decision tree matrices that will help you decide what’ll work best for you and your work:

  1. Knowledge – What background information are you required to know before you act on the advice that’s been given to you? How much time are you willing to spend researching the validity of the claim or learning the pieces you aren’t up-to-speed on? While you can’t put a price on knowledge, it is an intrinsic asset and one that may require more effort to attain in specific cases when technology, new forms of writing, etc. are involved.
  2. Achievability – Based on what you’ve been told, how many other authors have successfully replicated that same piece of advice? Or, are you willing to risk everything on the off-chance you’ll be “lightning in a bottle?” Another way of looking at whether or not a piece of advice is valid for you, is if the recommendation hyper-focuses on a trend. Just as one example: the latest zombie craze may sound like an opportunity in disguise, but what’s chic in fiction now has already been written, revised, and edited. If you can leverage that monster-of-the-day, great! If you can’t? Well, then maybe your forte is not braaaaaaaiiiiinnnssss.
  3. Relevancy – You know yourself and your work best. Ask yourself whether or not the advice is relevant to what you want to do, what you’re working on, and where you are now in your career. This is probably one of the most important qualifiers when you process information, because you’ll need to decide how well that fits with what your goals are. If you find yourself questioning your work to the point where you desire to change what you’re doing before it’s completed, then you may want to reconsider who and where your getting the recommendations from.
  4. Distraction – Will the advice prevent (or delay) your completion of what you’re currently working on? If yes, what benefits do you hope to gain from applying the advice and do they outweigh finishing your manuscript? This concept goes back to relevancy, but it also further clarifies whether or not you can acknowledge how the recommendation will negatively impact your manuscript or goals.
  5. Experimentation – If the advice given to you is a risk, is it one you’re willing to take? How much time do you want to spend experimenting versus strengthening your core competency? By identifying opportunities for trial-and-error when they arise, you can help shape where you want to go, provided you’re in a position to accept a positive or negative outcome. After all, speculative ventures are not guaranteed to work. That’s why they’re experiments.
  6. Data Crunching – Can the advice be backed up with good data? Would you be willing to use that data and apply it to your own career? Oft overlooked, data is crucial to any business owner who wants to make fact-based decisions. Mind you, good data can be difficult to obtain and it’s often a snapshot of a larger picture. The idea behind getting data in the first place is to have supported claims and avoid anecdotal bits of advice that are steeped in conjecture. Data removes the emotion right out of the equation and can help keep you grounded when you want facts.
  7. Financials – Will you be able to afford to take the advice you’ve been given? Or does it cut into your time to do other paying work? A lot of advice doesn’t always come down to the “M” word – money – but more often than not hidden costs can start to affect your pocketbook. In addition to time, stress is an invisible expense that can spur you to write or freeze your fingers. When you stop producing, whether they be short stories, novels, articles, etc. you affect your ability to monetize your work. Advice itself may not have a dollar sign attached to it; but the application of it can both positively and negatively influence your bottom line.
  8. Timeliness – Is there an expiration date on the advice? Does your success or failure rely on how fast you can complete the recommendation? The adage timing is everything is often true for pieces of advice that are not only time-sensitive, but also demand your full attention. Understanding the “what” and the “how” of what someone is proposing can pale in comparison to the “when.”

Hopefully, these eight concepts will help remind you what you already know, that advice is cheap if not free. However, nothing can replace the precious time you spend in front of your monitor, typewriter, or notebook writing. Regardless of what anyone says, you’re the only author qualified enough to shape where you’ll go. By training your inner voice to critically think about how the advice you receive applies to your work – you’ll be able to do just that.

In Praise of Editors

I love editors. I love them in theory and practice. In general and particular. Right now, every single editor I work with is awesome. And every single one of them would’ve eaten that previous sentence for lunch.

In fact, I wouldn’t dare file a story to any of them with “awesome” in it, except as a joke (or if I were really, really tired). Besides, the editors I work with know me well enough to know that “awesome” isn’t a word I’d use. That kind of familiarity is … well, it’s awesome!

Sure, there have been editors I didn’t get along with for various reasons.

Sometimes an editor wants something very specific, but doesn’t articulate exactly what it is that he or she wants. Freelance writer and designer Will Hindmarch calls this the “bring me a rock” scenario. It goes something like this:

Editor: “Bring me a rock.”

Writer: “Here’s a rock. I found it just for you!”

Editor: “I want a different rock.”

Writer: “Here’s another rock. Isn’t it wonderful?”

Editor: “Not that rock. Bring me a rock.”

Writer: “???”

Sometimes editor states very clearly what he or she wants and I don’t really listen.

Editor: “Bring me a rock.”

Writer: “Here’s that fish you wanted! Isn’t it neat?”

The latter example is all my fault. I can own that. And I also own a drawer (actually, a digital file folder) full of fish that have yet to find a place to swim. Want one? I’m giving them away free of charge.

I know the rules, the dos and don’ts of the writer/editor relationship. I’ve written about those rules and taught them in classes. I’ve even followed them (most of the time) since my first newspaper job over twenty years ago.

I’ve also broken just about every one of the rules and tried my darndest to learn from my mistakes.

Some of us, however, are slower learners than others. Being life-long learners, sometimes, has more to do with how slowly we learn than with the infinite scope of our curiosity.

The best thing about the editors I work with (other than their patience) is that every last one of them calls me on my BS and, for the most part, doesn’t hold that very same BS against me.

And that is so, so awesome.

I admit it: sometimes I blow deadlines or turn stories in so close to the print run that the editors involved have no time even to copy edit them. Sometimes I forget to update my editors or I drop completely off the grid. Sometimes I need to be re-angled multiple times. Sometimes my stories are, shall we say, structurally unsound, organizationally baffling, epically confounding. And I get wordy, especially when I’m tired. If I have too little to do, I procrastinate. I pitch stories impulsively. Heck, I even space out on sending in the invoices. And, let’s just face it: my comma usage is definitely not awesome.

I don’t do these things all the time, but for most editors once is enough. I should know better. I should do better. I should be a better writing professional.

That’s what an editor does. Pushes us to be better writers. Demands our best and deserves to get it.

Writers need editors. And I don’t just mean aspiring and new writers. Every writer. Each and every one of us needs editors.

Editors pull us out of our own heads, gives us fresh perspectives on our work while it’s still growing. Editors help us see with fresh eyes. They inspire us, have faith in us. They lend us their skill and the benefit of their experience. They teach us to be better writers … if we listen, if we keep our eyes and ears and egos open to what they have to offer.

How could we not love someone whose job it is to help make what we’ve written better?

Do I have an idealized view of editors? Maybe. Do I have an idealized view of the editors I work with? Not at all. They are human, every last one of them. They are imperfect. They get cranky. Annoyed. That’s all part of the give and take, the human interaction, the creative process.

Editors are awesome. And we writers should treat them as such. We should open up a document file or pull out a pen and some paper this very moment and write them some of the cleanest, smoothest, most on-topic copy we’ve ever written. Flesh it out. Develop it. Dig deep and push past clichés.

When we have something worthy, we should send it in early, receive edits as though they were birthday gifts, revise as though possessed by a higher being, and file glorious final drafts.

I’m not being sarcastic, here. I’m not kidding. These people play a vital role in what we do as writers. We should treat them as accordingly.


When Publishers Do Bad Things

It doesn’t happen that often, thankfully, but sometimes publishers do bad things, things that go beyond issues of incompetence or lack of organization. Usually these “bad things” have to do with non-payment of royalties or advances, the cancellation of books for specious reasons, and/or poor or abusive treatment of the author during the editorial or publishing process. (Granted, repeated cancellation of books may just indicate poor initial decision-making on the part of a publisher, but is still an important factor when considering what publisher to go with–assuming you have a choice.)

What are usually not valid excuses for bad behavior?

—Blaming sudden growth for non-payment of monies because of supposed ma-and-pop corner store accounting practices. Most all publishers, large and small, deal with distributors and wholesalers who keep records of books sold. It would be unlikely that any publisher would not have a fairly good idea of book sales for an individual title, no matter how busy they are. Publishers have to communicate with the entities that help them sell their books in order to keep publishing. This requires them to stay in the loop.

—Suggesting communication issues as a generic catch-all reason that absolves particular individuals of responsibility, especially in cases where it is quite clear that those who have been ill-served have been attempting to communicate and simply have been ignored. In this case, the excuse is simply an effort to stave off negative publicity.

—Putting the onus on the individual writers published by the publisher to come to them with any issues or problems related to non-payment.
This suggests a less than proactive approach on the publisher’s part and may simply be a delaying tactic.

Always remember that by the time individual writers are willing to say bad things about a particular publisher, this is usually just the tip of the iceberg, to use a cliche. Very few writers feel comfortable bad-mouthing their publisher, for fear of being seen as difficult. In cases where several writers have spoken out, you can almost always guarantee that many of those who haven’t spoken out also have issues with the publisher.

When considering a publisher, be sure to check with a sampling of writers published by that publisher, to get a sense of how consistent, honest, and fair the publisher is in dealing with writers. From a writer’s point of view, a publisher is only as good as the average experience that can be expected in dealing with them. Every publisher will have highs and lows depending on personalities and issues beyond anyone’s control.

Also remember that indie presses in particular have their eccentricities, and that each press has its strengths and its weaknesses. This is not the same thing as “bad behavior”–these are simply the quirks writers have to deal with, just as the publisher and acquiring editor are agreeing to put up with your quirks, in a sense, and you will have to decide which quirks you don’t mind and which make a publisher unattractive to you.

The Discovery Process: Improving Your Abilities

(Afraid of bears? Maybe you need to throw yourself in a bear pit…and maybe not. Photo by Jeremy Tolbert.)

A few more thoughts about the discovery process, below. I also firmly believe that establishing goals in the right way–strategically and not tactically–will reduce your stress level as a writer and make it clear which things are important and which are not. I deal with setting goals in my book and in Booklife workshops. This fall, you can catch a full-on Booklife workshop in Seattle, a much shorter version in the San Francisco area, or just discuss these topics with me in Asheville.

How can you work on problem areas without being overwhelmed? Make a list of your strengths, your weaknesses, and those gray areas in between—things you’re not terrible at but not great at, either. Even though you’ve presumably had others help you evaluate your strengths and weaknesses to get to this stage, take this list and give it to a couple of friends or colleagues you didn’t include in your original analysis. Ask them if your list is accurate. After you’ve included their feedback, and been totally honest with yourself, do the following:

—Break the Strengths list down into subcategories, rating yourself in each, so you have a better idea of what those strengths mean. Stay aware of your strengths even as you work on your weaknesses and make sure shoring up weaknesses doesn’t negatively affect your strengths.

—Select two items from the Gray Areas list that you think you can easily improve and that would help your writing career. Make sure your short-term and long-term goals include ways to better yourself in these areas.

—Select one item from the Weaknesses list, even if it’s something that also scares you. Add elements to your short-term and long-term goals that give you opportunities to make this weakness a strength, or at least something you’re not bad at anymore.

—Select one item from the Weaknesses list that you don’t want to work on improving. This advice especially applies if something on your list scares you too much. Setting it off to the side is about preserving your mental health. You can always revisit it in the context of success with some other weakness.

Live radio interviews (which now include podcasts) fit into the category of a weakness that scared me to death. The first time I was on, I mumbled and I could hardly breathe. Because I was so nervous, I wound up saying something like “You’re as stupid as I want to be” to the host, which was meant as a joke but came off as insulting and bizarre.

The second time I was on the radio, it went fine. Until the host made a strange comment about whether or not I lived in a cave, which threw me off so much the rest of the interview entered a decaying orbit.

The third time, I got the hiccups from drinking too much coffee. I spent the whole hour making sure the cadence of my speech allowed me to turn from the microphone just as I was about to hiccup. This worked better for the interview portion than for the reading I did afterwards.

What was my particular remedy? I relied on repetition and experimentation. I just kept accepting radio and Internet podcast interview requests. I also experimented with different kinds of preparation. Eventually, the combination of finding the best way to prepare and doing more interviews made me more comfortable with the format. I can’t tell you I’m the best radio interview ever—I still get nervous—but when you hear me on the radio these days you’re
unlikely to say to yourself, “Wow! That guy was horrible.”

As for a gray area that I’ve turned into a strength, public readings fit that category. Unlike radio station show appearances, readings never scared me. However, I didn’t have a good sense of performance so my readings were serviceable but nothing to excite anyone. Over the past few years, I have worked hard to add an element of performance to my readings, along with humorous anecdotes. Part of that growth process meant watching myself
on video giving readings. Another part meant being more careful about my selection of material and how long I read. Now, most people come away from one of my readings entertained, and I generally see comments on blogs afterwards along the lines of “Wow — that guy really put on a good show.”

Not only will you remove stress from your life by confronting some of your weaknesses and gray areas head-on, you’ll also learn a lot in the process. Like anything else in your Public Booklife, you just have to approach it systemically and incrementally.