Very few of you will actually need this drummed into your heads. That said, I’m a guest (can’t read, can’t comment) in a group where submissions editors share the horrible come-backs that authors send them after they reject submissions. I’d share some with you, but that’s against the rules. Reading those come-backs has taught me a lot about what not to say or do in a professional publishing context.
No matter how great you think you are–and you can be a multiple award-winning author who’s rolling in money, fame, and glory–no one actually likes an arrogant asshole. Likewise, no one likes a person who is difficult to work with. I have been both arrogant and difficult to work with, and I’ve worked with both sets of people, and I know what I’m talking about.
First: writing is not a competition. There’s no race for you to get your work to publication before someone else does. You absolutely do not need to worry about theft or plagiarism unless your novel is 100% ready to go and someone literally steals the file or print and mails it to a slush pile before you can do so. And even then, you have so much proof that you wrote it that you can beat that thief in court.
There are dozens of paranormal romances out there featuring alpha werewolves. There are dozens featuring sexy vampires. Mysteries with private investigator characters are a dime a dozen. Whatever idea you have, it’s probably not unique or original, which means no one can steal it. You may have a new take on an old idea, but you probably don’t even have that.
What you have is your unique way of telling a story that’s probably hundreds of years old by now.
People love that shit. I grew up reading the original fairy tales. I mean, I was five years old, sitting there working my way through the Cinderella version where the stepsisters cut off their own toes and birds pluck out their eyes as they’re literally marching Cinderella to the marriage altar. Those stories are a part of my DNA and probably why I can’t resist writing dark stuff. Readers love tropes and will actively seek out their favorite tropes, or retellings of already-existing stories and themes, so you really, really don’t have to worry about someone stealing your idea and publishing it. Just write the damn story.
Writers who zealously guard their work, require NDAs (which aren’t appropriate for anything except Harry Potter Book 7-level stuff), and who screech about theft of idea are obnoxious and insecure, and the rest of the reading/writing community stands back and laughs up their sleeves over such people. Don’t be one of them.
Second, do not drag other authors down. Lift them up.
You know who looks ugly when they trash an author? The person doing the trashing. Yes, I even mean people who trash Stephenie Meyer and E L James. Both Meyer and James are rich, rich, rich, and they both have devoted fan bases. Don’t you wish you could have that? The people who trash them try to cover it by saying they disapprove of elements of Meyer’s and James’s works, but the fact of the matter is that they’re trashing the authors, not the themes and plots and characters of the books. “Meyer is a hack” is about Meyer, not about her writing.
I once read the first 10% of the first Twilight book because I wanted to know what the fuss was about. I didn’t see why people loved it, but I also didn’t see why people hated it. I didn’t finish it, didn’t read the rest, didn’t watch the movies, and have no opinion about the quality of the books. I know almost nothing about Meyer herself. Same with James. I didn’t read the 50 Shades books. The point is, I’m not a fan. I gain nothing by defending them except my own self-respect.
It’s totally fair to take exception to some idea, theme, element, character portrayal, etc. in a book. I have read books where African Americans were portrayed in racist ways, and I sure as hell took exception to that and said so loudly. It’s totally fair to publicly discuss the things you don’t like about a book. It’s also fair to say that the purchase of a new book that promotes stereotypes is a tacit support of those stereotypes, which is why I refuse to buy any of Orson Scott Card’s books from anywhere other than used bookstores, and I didn’t see the movie even though I like Ender’s Game. The man hates gay people, and I don’t care to support that opinion with my money. But I don’t trash Card as a writer. I criticize his oppressive belief, and I could never be friends with him, but those are not the same thing.
Dragging other authors down will not make it more likely for you to publish. It won’t make your readership bigger. It won’t net you more money. It will make you look like an asshole, and it will keep you from ever being read by that author’s fans. It may also make you a laughingstock on social media.
Likewise, never, ever publicly trash a reviewer, whether pro or amateur. In general, be as civil as possible. Everything negative you say can and will come back to haunt you and may result in the end of your career. People listen, and they make up their minds about whether you’re worth the trouble, and that could be the difference between the publication of your manuscript and its rejection.
If you receive a rejection slip, do not write to the publishing company and insult them. Your prose isn’t as awesome, deathless, high-brow, important, amazing, incredible, or life-changing as you think it is. The people who read it aren’t ignorant hacks. If they don’t understand your message, you didn’t do a good job of writing it. And if you show yourself to be the poster child for the Dunning-Kruger Effect, don’t expect to ever publish. Publishing companies have lists that they put people on. “This person didn’t handle rejection well, behaved in an unprofessional way, and personally insulted staff members X, Y, and Z” is not a note you want appended to that publishing house’s file on you. Not to mention, they do, on occasion, talk to each other. If you want publishing houses to enter into a bidding war for your work, you better handle rejection as politely as possible first.
Third, your prose is not deathless.
In fact, it’s probably not as good as you think it is. That’s okay. Total crap does get published, and the worst writer I ever read has a fan base. You can be quite publishable and have a good career with middling prose. Many do.
When a critique partner suggests you change something about your book to make it work better, give the request some serious consideration. If your reaction to receiving critiques is to shove your fingers in your ears and start chanting nonsense syllables, you’re behaving in an arrogant (and childish) fashion.
“But I’m an artist!” you might say, or some variation thereof. Great. There’s a reason they’re called “starving artists.” If you want to be “true to your art,” don’t complain if you never earn any money and remain unknown. Many people are happy to be true to their art and forego royalties. There’s nothing wrong with that. And I’m not saying change your work to please everybody, because you can’t please everybody.
That said, if you intend to be commercially successful, you do want to make sure that 80% of your crit partners/beta readers are satisfied. If you have five critique partners and three of them say that you need to clarify your main character’s motivations, then do so. Besides, as you grow in skill you won’t have the conflict of being true to your vision and producing something commercially acceptable. (If you’re writing for a hobby, do whatever you want–but again, don’t be an asshole about it.)
I write a lot about Latino characters. One of my characters was named Brayan. I wrote over 200,000 words using that spelling. Some of my crit partners had no idea how to pronounce the name, which happens to be the phonetic spelling of “Brian” for Spanish-speaking people. While “Brayan” is more authentic, I changed the name (and not without a serious struggle) to “Bryan” because my readership is mostly going to be native English speakers, most of whom won’t speak Spanish. I don’t want my readers to experience the name of this significant character as a road block, because if they do so, they won’t be able to fully immerse themselves in the story. So I changed the spelling of his name.
Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory wrote an epic fantasy called Blade of Empire. I enjoyed it immensely. Most of the characters are elves, and in their world elves have extremely long and complicated names. The male main character’s name is Runacarendalur Caerthalien. This is an epic fantasy, with two of three books published, so you can imagine how many characters have names like that. An enormous number of readers who reviewed the books (especially the first one) commented on how off-putting the names were. Now Lackey and Mallory are experienced, many-times-published authors who have devoted fanbases who would probably read their books if every character used their social security number as their name. But you and I, we are not them. We don’t get that willingness to jump the hurdle of difficult names, etc.
Consider changing whatever it is that’s causing your readership / critique partners trouble. Be flexible. Listen. Learn. Consider. Approach your writing relationships with humility, kindness, and respect. Give honest feedback, but don’t be cruel. Don’t say horrible things about people in person or on the Internet even if you think you’re totally justified. Don’t ever publish anything negative about anyone while you’re upset. Life, writing, and the whole process actually goes easier if you think of yourself as one of many writers, if you’re willing to take advice, and if you make the attempt to be easy to work with.