Top Five Things This Writer Hates–Writers Out There, What Do YOU Hate?

Jeff VanderMeer • January 16th, 2009 @ 10:03 am • Writing Tips

This post comes with the caveat that I think freelancers who live off of writing income hate some of these more, and that “hate” as used herein is not the white-hot hate of a million suns but closer to the disgusted or frustrated “oh I hate it when that happens.” Also, that this post was not created in reaction to any particular situation; it’s more in the nature of a few thoughts after twenty plus years of being a writer, and having been a publisher and editor. Note that this doesn’t address those things that publishers/editors/other entities “hate” about writers–that’s a post for next week (although I think you can see what those might be from the flip side of the points below).

(AND: What do YOU hate, writers out there?)

1 – Having to ask for payments that are due. I hate having to ask for what I am owed. It is just an extra ‘orrible thing to have to remember–that nudge, along with “hey, my apologies for asking, but where’s the dosh?” It adds stress and becomes just another item on the mental horizon that you know you have to deal with. Any publisher or other entity who regularly pays without that nudge gets extra props in my book, because it’s actually not an industry standard.

2 – Late payment without communication. Some people think that if they ignore a problem, it will go away. A freelancer owed money doesn’t go away. But neither do I ever have a problem with an honest conversation about the when’s and why’s and what-for’s connected to payment. What I cannot stomach is communication in which the other party tries to will the issue away by just not facing up to their responsibilities.

3 – Lack of Honesty. Especially in this era when face-to-face communication is rare, trust can be precarious. Emails strip out a lot of the data by which we decide whether we trust someone or not. All that’s really left is saying what you mean and doing what you say you’re going to do. As the disconnect between what you say and what you do grows, so too does my distrust, and ultimately that connection is corrupted.

4 – Assumptions about what the writer already knows. There’s very little institutional knowledge in publishing. Too many people in the business do not understand that the knowledge in their heads, especially info particular to their institution or entity, does not automatically go by way of Vulcan mindmeld into the head of the person they’re dealing with. Thus, a lot of time is wasted because of assumptions made to the contrary. Being able to either see things from the other person’s point of view or to document your process (and the writer’s responsibilities within that process) goes a long way toward preventing communication breakdowns and stress during the lifecycle of a relationship.

5 – Being either too rigid or too fluid. This is lowest on the list because it’s harder to specifically define what the terms mean. But here’s an attempt at a general level. Having a timeline, a plan, and deadlines are all good things, elements of any successful project. But because writing is a process of discovery, any such structure should allow for variation and exploration along the way (change management, in the business world)–for flexibility. If it doesn’t, then creative opportunities that might enhance the quality of your product may be snuffed out before they can be implemented–and the writers involved will probably be unhappy. At the same time, a project management structure that is too hazily defined and defers too much to the creative process risks the diminishment of product quality, or even the lack of a product at all. Finding that balance is key to the sanity of everyone involved, but especially the writer, who flourishes when able to clearly define the objective while also indulging fully his or her sense of play and imagination. (Which, in this context, is not a frivolous thing, but essential to success.)

As for the number one thing an institution or person can do to make a writer their friend for life: send a card or little gift if it’s a job well-done– or, in select cases, add a little extra to the payment. But even a very small gesture creates enormous goodwill, because they are so infrequent across the industry.

51 Responses to “Top Five Things This Writer Hates–Writers Out There, What Do YOU Hate?”

  1. Gilles says:

    Oh my. I always thought one of the things writers hated most was to be asked “tell me… where do all your ideas come from ?”

  2. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    We hate that, too. We also hate sauerkraut, tea cosies, and small talk.

  3. Kit Reed says:

    We also hate people who say, “I have a great idea for you,” but not as much as we hate people who say, “I’d write a novel too… if I only had the time.”

  4. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Kit–I totally agree, on both of those. My eyes glaze over on the first and I frown upon hearing the second. Some peoples seem to think that the only thing separating them from being published is having more time. I try to change the subject usually. Or I say, “Well, you must have had more fulfilling things to do, I’m sure.”

  5. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    And I’ve changed the post slightly to solicit more opinions–so, writers out there. What do you hate??!?!?

  6. Kimberly Comeau says:

    I hate people who ask me to write their life stories for them.

  7. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    LOL! That’s a great one. I once was asked to write the memoir of a 35-year-old veteran of the Israeli army who had grown up in a gang neighborhood of LA and gone on to be a consultant to various politicians. Except none of it was true, and I was chased by wild pigs while hiking with him, which seems like the appropriate punishment for believing him.

  8. Diana Pharaoh Francis says:

    I hate when editors get all the time in the world to do what they need to do and then tell us to hurry hurry hurry!

    I also hate that people think that because you’re home, you aren’t really working and they come bother you right at deadline.

  9. John Coulthart says:

    #1 applies to much freelance work if my experience is anything to go by. Even when you have a contract that agrees a payment date, invoices can go astray in accounting departments, cheques get lost in the post and so on.

  10. Kelly Barnhnhill says:

    I agree with everything so far – except for the sauerkraut issue. Real writers love sauerkraut, VanderMeer. I’m pretty sure it’s in the job description.

    What I can’t stand is editors who are not clear about what it is that they want – either with me or with themselves. Mushy instructions, mushy concepts and mushy feedback. Is clarity too much to ask for these days?

    Also – when editors fall all over themselves about an unrealistic deadline, and my piece then sits on their desk for four months, and then when they ask for changes, they need a four-day turnaround. Man, I am still pissed about that one.

    Also – when people use joke in their letters explaining why my check is going to be thee months late. Not only jokes, but lame jokes. Honestly. Say what you mean and move on, none of this foot shuffling, cheek reddening, aw-shucks stuff. Besides. Some things just aren’t all that funny, yanno? Especially when my kid’s orthodontics are at stake.

  11. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Kelly–yeah, I hate all of that stuff. But I especially hate hearing an editor complain about a writer who is always cranky or always late turning edits in…without knowing the context of expectations, timeline, etc.

    Jeff

  12. Bill Ectric says:

    Jeff, I’m curious about number 4, Assumptions about what the writer already knows. Without naming names or impugning associates, could you give an example?

  13. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    It’s so widespread I’d say there’s no way to cast aspersions. I find that many editors and agents assume the writer already knows the whole process of having a book accepted for publication, prepared for publication, and published. So they assume the writer knows, for example, that page proofs with copy-edits will be coming at a particular time, or whatever. And then situations occur similar to what’s been mentioned above–editor sits on manuscript for four months, then wants a turn-around that’s especially stressful if the writer doesn’t know it’s coming. There’s little institutional documentation of any of this stuff, in my opinion. It’s something I deal with in Booklife.

    Jeff

  14. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Can’t wait to post the top five from an editor’s POV next week. LOL.

  15. Jess Nevins says:

    *Anyone* in the interested who doesn’t send a “No, thank you” e-mail. It takes about five to ten seconds to type and helps the recipient immensely, but far too many people in the industry, from writers to editors, can’t be bothered.

  16. J M McDermott says:

    My biggest pet peeve besides the muck ups with the late payments, late paperwork, and lateness of others (and how we would usually be in a bad situation if we responded in kind with our delivery of stuff…) is not on this list.

    I am very perturbed with a strong trend towards paying writers less because so many people are willing to wor for little pay. I take no solace in the knowledge that clients get the quality of work for which they pay. At the end of the day, folks who need to hire writers often don’t have the literacy skills to comprehend the difference in quality between a 1 cent/word writer versus a 25 cent/word writer.

    It may be my perspective, and my nearly functionally illiterate scrap of landscape in Texas, but the marketplace definitely seems to be moving towards paying the writer less.

    I remember being asked to edit something, and I was offered five dollars a page. Fast forward two years, I was offered an editing gig for just five dollars, total.

    I applaud the speculative fiction magazines that realize they need to try to pay writers more, and work to find viable ways to improve their rates. Unsurprisingly, places that pay better per word tend to have the best stories (like Clarkesworld).

    I wish folks around here would make that mental connection.

  17. Zephid Bebex says:

    Too bad you didn’t write the veteran’s memoir–if fictitious, it would have almost guaranteed an appearance on Oprah!

  18. Corey Redekop says:

    Aside from late payments (I’m with you whoeheartedly there), my biggest peeve is people asking, “Are you writing a sequel?” I’m flattered that they want more, but why can’t anything simply end?

  19. Tim Lebbon says:

    I hate people who, when they find out what I write, say, “You must be a sick f**k. Actually, I’ve never read a book in my life.” (This actually happened. And in truth, I pity more than hate them.)

  20. jeff vandermeer says:

    Hey, Tim and Corey et al–good to see you here. man, I hate that stuff too.

  21. J M McDermott says:

    I also hate that Ann Coulter sells more copies of her “books” than I do.

  22. brendan connell says:

    I like sauerkraut. I hate when editors or publishers dont respond to emails or respond three or four months later. I also hate the continual call for “professionalism” by people who treat others like mice. I also hate over-cooked pasta.

  23. J M McDermott says:

    Brendan, I have to say I have never, ever been treated like a mouse by anyone. Everyone I’ve encountered in publishing in any capacity, including bad ones, all behave quite well, indeed.

    Admittedly, I’ve avoided a few places on purpose.

  24. brendan connell says:

    JM: Hmm. Well, I can say in all certainty that I have seen many treated like mice. But I don’t avoid places.

    To clarify though, I am talking in part (not in whole) about a few different things:

    1) Writers need to be good little girls and boys because after all, we are putting their words between two covers and, maybe if they are lucky, paying them a few cents a word.

    2) There are good writers and bad writers and the bad writers are fools and we should all laugh at them because fools deserved to be laughed at and told that there is a right way to do things and a wrong way.

    3) There is a right way to do things and a wrong way.

    Is what I am aiming at is this:

    If I wanted to be “professional” I would have become a lawyer or a doctor. I didn’t and don’t, so I became a writer. Dickens was up to his neck in debt. Balzac was sent to prison for debt and died penniless. So why act like writing is something that needs to be measured in the same way as computer programming?

    Disclaimer: The above comments are meant in the best of humour and should not offend anyone.

  25. Fabio says:

    I hate people who “hire” you (because it´s only on a word-of-mouth basis, no contracts – in Brazil this was very common until a few years ago) to write a novel, or a series of novellas, and then, when you have just finished the job, they a) disappear ou b) simply tell you they just aren´t going to follow the agreed for the time being (and this period of time simply stretches for all eternity, of course).

    Both things have happened to me in the past, BTW.

    And, Jeff, I also was asked once to write the memoir of three bikers (two guys from Brazil, one from Portugal) who made a road trip from Rio de Janeiro to California. This much was true, except for the fact that thet skipped Central America because of the war in Nicaragua then, but I can´t blame them for that. What I can blame them for (and I do) is having all that tiresome recording sessions in which they drank too much, smoke pot, and simply couldn´t tell two stories in a row without getting all confused (they kept diaries, but these were pretty much unintelligible). In the end, I jumped off the boat and never got paid. Jesus, the things we (try to) do for money (we never put our hands on)…

  26. jeff vandermeer says:

    Fabio–gawd, I’m gonna have to do a separate post just for writer anecdotes. what a gig!

    Brendan–i agree with you to a large extent.

  27. Will says:

    Re: #4: YES.

    Connected to this is the assumption at any one publishing house that the way they do it is standard (or even, you know, smart). I worked for a publisher whose practices were largely unlike those of every publisher I’d worked with on staff or freelance, but they didn’t educate me as to company practices because they figured they just did things the way things were done. Worse, to me, is that these practices were made habit (not chosen) without any intellectual curiosity about how things work in other places.

    A friend of mine, meanwhile, was passed over for a job at a publisher only to learn later that they missed the edits he made on their mock manuscript because they didn’t know how to view comments in Word. I suppose that’s an example of both parties assuming the other would do things a certain way (e.g. “normally”), but still.

    Walking that line between appeared informed and doing it right is a curious thing for a freelancer. The fact that asking how a publisher wants something done can ever be seen as a weakness to a publisher boggles me.

  28. jeff vandermeer says:

    Absolutely, Will! I sometimes wonder how much sheer waste of time and money goes on as a result, too.

  29. Gary Gibson says:

    I don’t mind when people ask what I write, but I hate it when a very few people act like utter dicks when I tell them I write science fiction. It’s happened only very rarely, but it was enough to make me wary of telling people I write.

    I hate that for some very few others, saying you write science fiction is clearly equivalent to saying you hang out in deserted fields wearing a parka and carrying a digital camera in the hopes of spotting a flying saucer.

  30. Laird says:

    “I don’t mind when people ask what I write, but I hate it when a very few people act like utter dicks when I tell them I write science fiction. It’s happened only very rarely, but it was enough to make me wary of telling people I write.”

    To ensure the politeness of strangers, I find it best to entertain these sorts of queries while oiling a firearm or carefully sharpening a large knife.

  31. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Ha, Laird!

    Yes, Gary–I’ve experienced the same thing. At my last day job, which I was at for almost nine years, the initial interview was quite funny. The interviewer, who became my manager, when I said I wrote fantasy, asked, jokingly, “You’re not one of those guys who writes books with black-and-white covers and at the end there’s a cut-off head on the mantel.” I said no, but that was in fact an accurate description of my most current book at the time.

    Jeff

  32. S.J. says:

    Hi, this is my emergence from Vandermeer blog lurker to participant.

    I hate being asked the “what do you write question,” but found myself asking it of others last night. It is awkward, because there doesn’t seem to be an adequate way to inquire into people’s interests. So, I’m curious to know how the writers here would like to be asked about their work? In my case, I think I’d like to be approached along the lines of “what was your last piece about?” Seems way more manageable.

  33. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    SJ: Thanks for participating! I may raise this up to new blog post level on Sunday or Monday if you don’t mind. In the meantime, I’m curious to hear people’s answers.

  34. R. Schuyler Devin says:

    I hear these horror stories from fellow writers quite often. Fortunately, my payments have been prompt, and the communication quick and amicable. I now need to find a piece of wood to knock on…

    In response to SJ: Last time someone asked that question, I responded with “I write an array of fiction.”

  35. brendan connell says:

    I would prefer if people just said: “You’re so fucking brilliant. I know everything you write is great, so you don’t need to bother telling me about it, because I know you would much rather concentrate on that glass in your hand.”

  36. zsetrek says:

    Once, a journal published one of my stories without actually telling me as much. I submitted it, a friend on the editorial committee let me know that they loved it, and I didn’t hear anything more until the cheque/complimentary copy turned up in the mail. Of course, because they’d never actually gone to the effort of getting into touch with me the whole editing process had been skipped, and the story was a completely mess – up to and including an error in the title that sets my teeth on edge to this day.

  37. Bill Ectric says:

    S.J. I like the idea of asking “what was your last piece about?” It’s perfect. It focuses on one thing and makes the conversation manageable.

  38. Mike Allen says:

    I have worked with editors who could have stood to have that list in front of them at all times, preferably stapled to their foreheads.

  39. S.J. says:

    Hey Jeff: I don’t mind at all.

    Bill: Thanks. Now we just need to spread the word to all would-be inquirers.

    Happy Poe day, everyone.

  40. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Hey, all. I will contact people, too, but just a note that I may want to use some of the discussion in the book I’m working on now: Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for 21st Century Writers. If no one minds. If you DON’T Mind, don’t worry about responding here–I’ll be in touch if I need anything. If you DO mind, will save me time if you do post something here. Cheers, Jeff.

  41. Nicole Cushing says:

    I’m a newer writer, but one of the things I already find frustrating is the instability among many small press markets. Magazines fail. Pay rates drop. Anthologies die. Publishers go out of business.

    Obviously, that can’t be fun for the publisher and/or editor, either (after all, they went into business hoping to succeed). But I’ve learned to submit my work to magazines with a history of longevity and some continuity at the editorial helm. Live and learn.

  42. Specmysticon says:

    Hi Jeff

    This may be an entirely inappropriate venue to raise this (and probably totally hypocritical of me), but how would writers and editors feel about two suggestions made to me recently:

    1. First limited simultaneous submission with full disclosure
    This is an idea raised (as a possible short fiction industry standard) by a writer who submitted his story and just wanted to run it by us. It would work as follows: Writer submits story to market A, with note indicating simultaneous submission of story to Market B. The same information is included in the cover letter to Market B. Within these cover letters, it is made clear that first market to accept, gets to publish the story. The writer also added that this simultaneous submission would only be valid for the first two markets a story to which is submitted. I’m not sure why the writer has this firsties limitation. It would work on an honour system to keep writers honest (supposedly enforced by editors??)

    2. One sentence rejection feedback
    It would work with form letters by having a sentence like ‘The problem I have with this story is ____________. Of course, the blank space can be longer. For example, there may be 5 problems with the story, but the sentence should only highlight the BIGGEST problem with it.

    While I have my reservations with regard to both suggestions, I’d like to hear the thoughts of both writers and editors on these suggestions.

  43. Magnetic Crow says:

    Yeah… I think these are all things that freelancers in general deal with. I’ve run into the same working graphic design and illustration freelance. :(

    From the perspective of a freelancer, then, something I hate: People who want you to do work for them, but then refuse to write up a solid contract because they “trust you to do the work”. Then they order 5,000 revisions without increasing pay, and you dump the whole project in disgust and don’t get a cent for any of it..

    Also, as an illustrator something I hear a lot is “Hey, I’ve written this children’s book and I want you to illustrate it. I can’t pay you right now, but when I get published we can split the royalties.” Invariably, the person does not yet have a publishing contract, or the remotest idea of how to obtain one.

    Of course, if the conversation was more like “Hey, I’m Jeff Vandermeer and I have this story I’ve written, and I want you to illustrate it…” then that’s different.
    From the recent blog posts I see that someone got that lucky recently.

  44. S.J. says:

    To Specmysticon: I know a lot of editors don’t have time to give input, that’s why they opt for the form, but as a newish writer I would love to get feedback, even if it was a terse sentence.

    Rejection is part of the game, but it becomes frustrating during the reworking process that what you are trying to make better about the story may not be its true weakness.

    Maybe a sentence would help, maybe not, but it would be feedback.

  45. Bill Ectric says:

    Dear Magnetic Crow,

    I have an idea for a children’s book called Baby Animate Golems and I was wondering . . .

  46. Ennis Drake says:

    I hate:

    1) Publications that bar simultaneous submissions.
    2) Non-standard ms. formatting.
    3) Publishers/Editors that don’t respond to queries in a timely manner. If you’ve had my story for six weeks, or eight, or nine, and I get the response to my query AFTER I’ve finally received a rejection, SOMETHING IS WRONG. And yes, this has happened to me more than once.

  47. Grant Stone says:

    No communication whatsoever in a publication. One magazine here in NZ that had an email address for submissions:
    1: gave no response (even an autoreply) they had received the story
    2: gave no response after considerable time when I queried if they had received it
    3: gave no response when I wrote to withdraw the story.
    Still had absolutely no response from them. Story in question sold 2 days after sending it to another venue.

  48. Jesse says:

    Though I’m late for this dance, I want to rant about bios. I hate writin’em. Only had to do a few so far but they aren’t getting any easier. They should be fun, I mean, I like writing and I love myself, so the union of the two ought to be far more enjoyable. Either I adopt a sincere, bare bones approach and sound pretentious–I can’t help it that my chief interests are evening constitutionals, Bach, and medievalism!–or I try for the humorous with cringe-inducing results. So I panic and mention my bachelor’s degree for some reason, which really doesn’t relate to anything at all, and then it’s too late and I just ramble about classical mythology and childhood and it all turns into a horrible, horrible, steaming…

    …OK, I’m getting worked up just thinking about it. Awful, just awful stuff. Bios–not my thing.

  49. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    UPRIVER, “WAR OF ALL AGAINST ALL”: http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2009/01/21/war-of-all-against-all-writers-vs-editors-vs-publicists-vs-reviewers-vs-readers-vs-evil-monkey/

    Join in.

  50. Magnetic Crow says:

    @Bill Ectric
    w XD
    Way to do research! :)

  51. sinema says:

    At first I thought you told Google to call the library, and it did, and that blew my mind.

    Then I realized that you actually called the library, and my mind became unblown.
    I’ll get back to work…
    If you ask my opinion about this topic I really like. Thank you for sharing your friends. Hope to see you another day.

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