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Writing Excuses 8.37: When Fail Happens in Your Career

Writing Excuses 8.37: When Fail Happens in Your Career


Key Points: Go ahead and have your private reaction. Then stop, take stock, and think about how to make it productive. Fix it or feature it! Don't post too quickly -- remember, what you say on the Internet is forever. Learn from it! Avoid responding to negative reviews or other comments. Don't sweat the ordinary mistakes and dumb things, just keep writing. Rule of thumb: apologize freely and take responsibility. Then find out what you can do to improve things.
[Mary] season eight, episode 37.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, when fail happens in your career.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] And I'm dreading the point when fail happens.
[Brandon] I never get to screw up at the beginning. I should screw up the beginning more.
[Howard] Go for it.
[Mary] I think you just did.

[Brandon] Mary, you pitched this podcast. Tell us about it.
[Mary] well, I pitched this because I've seen this happen to other writers, or something goes wrong either in their career or they make a mistake and they handle it very badly. I've also had a couple of things go wrong in my own career and have had the opportunity of watching what works with other people and attempting to apply it myself. So the first thing was I thought we would talk about is when someone else makes a mistake and you have to deal with it.
[Brandon] Okay. Let's talk about that. Because a lot of people are involved with making a book work. There are a lot of gears turning and sometimes things can just get messed up.
[Mary] Yeah. The example that I have is that with Glamour in Glass, the first sentence in the hardcover was accidentally omitted. So there are a lot of ways that I could've handled that. What I want to talk about is the difference between your backstage reaction and your on-stage reaction.
[Brandon] Okay. Go for it.
[Mary] So my backstage reaction, and my editor knows this... My backstage reaction involved a lot of cursing. There was a lot of cursing.
[Brandon] Poopyhead. Things like that.
[Mary] Just poopy, poopy, poopy.
[Brandon] Yes.
[Howard] Doo-doo.
[Mary] Doo-doo. Cupcakes with sprinkles. So... But then what I did, after I had the private reaction, is that I took stock. That's the first thing that you need to do is you need to recognize that you are going to have a strong reaction to something that goes wrong, and you need to stop and take stock and think about the things that you can do to make this productive. Things that you can do to put this into a position where you want to be. So the first thing that I did was I wrote to my agent and I said, "Will you contact my editor?" I have a really good relationship with my editor, but I knew that I was angry and that I should not be trusted with a keyboard.
[Howard] Or a phone.
[Mary] Or a phone.
[Dan] Or a rusty cleaver.
[Howard] Heavy machinery.
[Mary] Then I... My editor said, "Send me a list of the things that are missing." So I sent over the list, which included the first line of the book had been omitted, please insert. She wrote back an email that was as full of cursing as my own reaction, including "How did this even happen? I am so sorry." And did all the right things. Was deeply apologetic. So then I had to... We had to talk about how to explain it to the public. This is very important. I wrote a post and I ran it past my editor before I put it up. We talked about strategy before I did my public thing. My public face was this is a fairly amusing thing that had happened. Let's have fun with this. So I did a quiz on different... I put up famous novels, can you identify them by their second sentence? I said, "If you want the sentence, you can get it from me by sending a SASE. If I am at a signing, I will handwrite it into your book."
[Brandon] I've seen you do that a lot.
[Mary] Yes. I regret it every time I hit the word simultaneously. It's a very long sentence. Then I started just doing goofy things. Like you can have a temporary tattoo with the sentence on it. There's an apron on my zazzle store. There's a whole bunch of ridiculous things. What happened with that was then people were invested in making sure that... Then people were like, "Look at how well she's handling this. I would've been so angry." And I was...
[Howard] I would've said cupcakes with sprinkles several times in public!

[Mary] But this is actually... This is something that I learned from my theater background as much as anything, because in theater, we have this theory that you can... When something goes wrong on stage, if you can ignore it... If it does not affect the show, you keep going. Had it been another sentence, I probably would've just been like, "Fine." But because it was the first sentence, because there were a couple of other things, it was like, "We have to acknowledge that this happened." So with theater, you say, "You can fix it or you can feature it."
[Brandon] Right. It's not a bug, it's a feature.
[Mary] The thing is that when something goes wrong on stage and people see you roll with it...
[Brandon] They love it!
[Mary] They love it.
[Brandon] It becomes some of the most memorable parts of the stage performance.
[Mary] Yeah. I once was... Well, actually more than once. I've been in a couple of shows where the set has literally fallen. On stage. One time was the Wizard of Oz, and the Witch's Castle, as we were leaving, fell over. It was this wrought iron thing and it hit the stage. There's no mistaking that this has fallen. It is loud. We arrive at the Emerald City and the woman playing Dorothy says to the Wizard of Oz... He's like, "Did you defeat the witch?" She's like, "Not only did we melt her, we knocked her castle down too!" The audience erupted into applause in ways that we had never gotten before. Because they saw us roll with it.

[Brandon] Now, the thing you don't want to do, and I'm sure you are going to get here, but I'll put words in your mouth. You do not want to post on the Internet too quickly. You do not want to post on the Internet in a certain mindset. You were right in letting it... The post get read by your editor. In fact, I'll bet you don't let most of your posts get vetted before you post them?
[Mary] No.
[Brandon] You're perfectly capable of not... Of doing that on your own. But this one you sent through. There are several high profile stories of people in the community, professionals, who look very unprofessional because of one or two things they posted. This has mostly happened more often in the past when people didn't understand how eternal the Internet was going to be, and how you could post something in 99 and 14 years later, someone would still show up at a signing with that post, laughing, and ask you to sign it. Like you can't get rid of these things. The Internet is completely eternal. You can't erase stuff from it. So once you've done it there, you can make a big... You can have a big kind of blight on your career because of it. Now, let's ask the rest of the broadcasters, has fail happened to you in your... Caused by someone else in your career? Have there... Things that people have done?

[Dan] Not in the same way that Mary has had to go through with it. But one of the interesting stories about I Am Not a Serial Killer was the fact that so many people were surprised when it became supernatural halfway through. That comes back to a last-minute editorial decision that was actually me and my editor and one of the authors that we had sent it to for a cover quote. He made some suggestions, and my editor made some, and between the three of us, we kind of really hashed it out. Should we make it obvious? How obvious do we need to make it in the first page that it's supernatural? We eventually decided on the current state of the book, where it's stated but not very strongly, and then there's nothing to really cement it into a genre until chapter 10. Looking back at that, I can absolutely see it is a mistake.

[Brandon] Okay. Well, let's actually... Let's do the book of the week first, and then we'll come back to what we... What you do when you have made a mistake. When fail has happened because of you in your career. Mary, you actually have our book of the week this week. The Blinding Knife.
[Mary] Yes, The Blinding Knife by Brent Weeks. This is a wonderful book. It's the second book in the series. We've suggested the first book. I also highly recommend the second book. This is... In a lot of ways, it's interesting to look at this because the main character in this book has a moment of severe fail. Looking at the way he handles it is also kind of interesting, even though he's a fictional character. But it's fantastic world building, wonderful epic fantasy, and some just phenomenal writing.
[Brandon] This is the book series that Brent shook his fist at me and screamed my name when he heard I was releasing Warbreaker because his is a color-based magic as well, and I got Warbreaker out like right before him. He's like, "Everybody's gonna believe I copied Sanderson." But then the magic systems are very different. So it turned out okay. But for a minute, he was like, "Argh, you beat me to the punch." Howard, how can they get The Blinding Knife?
[Howard] Well, if you are a new listener, you don't know this yet. Head out to and you can start a 30-day free trial membership that helps support the podcast and it helps you by giving you a copy of The Blinding Knife by Brent Weeks for free and you can have somebody read that book to you.
[Brandon] The first book in the series is The Black Prism, if you were wondering.
[Howard] The Black Prism.

[Brandon] So, Dan, how did you handle the fact that you may have made a mistake in how you edited your book?
[Dan] Well, being that it was my very first book and it was already out there and there was no way to change it, I chose to look at it as a learning experience. So this podcast here is actually the first time I've ever talked about it as a mistake, because more than anything else, it's just a fascinating study for me on how every reader is different. Some people look at that as "This made me hate it in chapter 10," other people say, "Well, this made me love it," or other people say, "I knew all the way from the beginning."
[Brandon] Would you say it's the most controversial thing about the book?
[Dan] Without question. In fact, if you go... And this is one of the things I love to point people to... If you go look at Amazon and you go look at all the one star reviews for I Am Not a Serial Killer, without fail all of them are about this specific issue, that it changes genre halfway through.
[Howard] Did you spend much time responding to those reviews on Amazon?
[Howard] I'm sorry, I couldn't even finish the question with a straight face.
[Dan] No, I didn't, but Larry Correia did.
[Dan] He's like, "What? Someone's making fun of my friend Dan?" So he got on and yelled at this dude.
[Howard] Bless his great big ham-size heart.
[Brandon] He is a G.I. Joe, so...
[Dan] He is a G.I. Joe now. No, but like I said, I looked at this like a learning experience because more than anything else this taught me about audience perceptions and specifically about their perceptions of genre. People who raved about the book as a brilliant work of literature until it became science fiction, at which point one sentence later, he said it was like a third grader had written it. Which is obviously that's how they perceive genre fiction. That's not the kind of attitude I can change or need to change, so I just let it roll off.
[Brandon] Letting it roll off is probably the thing you need to do most often with this, but, Howard, what were you going to say?

[Howard] I was going to say there's a Something Positive, a comic by Randy Milholland, there's a point in that strip where one of the characters has been wronged and sets off to do horrible things. Two of the other characters are talking about her, and one of them says, "Doesn't she know that two wrongs don't make a right?" The other character says, "Oh, sweetie, she's not going to stop at two."
[Howard] I love that joke because that's epic career fail. That's the point at which you get a bad Amazon review and you respond to the Amazon review in a poor tone of voice and someone responds to you and calls you immature and you respond and say, "Well, I'm a published author and you're not." It only goes downhill from there.
[Mary] I think that the only place you went wrong with that was you said, "... When you respond to an Amazon review with a poor tone of voice." It's when you respond to an Amazon...
[Howard] At all! You're right. You're right.
[Mary] The number of times in which you can respond to something negative that someone has said about you are very few. Very few. I have one in which I responded, and that's because they called me on a mistake that I made and they were totally right. That's with a story that I had in Weaving D... In Apex, a story called Weaving Dreams in which I was... I had a Native American... I was doing a story that had Native American magic in it. I hadn't done enough homework. I had some stuff in there that was offensive.
[Brandon] Right.
[Mary] They called me on it, and I looked at it and I waited. I waited for a couple of days before I responded. I decided to respond, I thought about it, because...
[Brandon] Yeah, this is tou... This is dangerous.
[Mary] I finally decided to respond. I said, "Thank you very much for bringing this to my attention. I talked about it with my editor and we're going to rewrite that." Because it was published online, we... I invited people to come and talk to me about it. I did a complete rewrite of the story. Apex republished it. But the other... The thing that I talked about at the beginning is that I waited. I took stock and I waited until I understood what it was that I had done wrong before I responded. Now if I had looked at it and I thought that she was wrong or I was angry, I shouldn't...
[Howard] Just ignore it.
[Mary] I just stay away from the keyboard.
[Brandon] Yeah. In these issues in particular are ones that you usually can only dig yourself deeper by saying anything.
[Mary] By saying anything before you understand what you've done. Like the faux apology people talk about, which is the "I'm sorry you were offended" which is... Which says basically I have not done anything wrong, it's totally on you that you're offended.

[Brandon] Now we also should probably mention, I mean, these aren't the only ways you can fail in your career. I think it covers... There's so many things that you can do. You're going to make mistakes. You are going to send the wrong story to the wrong editor and perhaps offend that editor. You are going to say something at a party when you're slightly drunk and then realize afterward you were standing next to Tom Doherty, the president of Tor. You are going to... You're just going to do dumb things, because we're people and we do. I think that at the end of the day, particularly as a new writer, one thing you have to remember is you're probably not important enough to be remembered. So you're probably okay for these sorts of things. Don't beat yourself up about it. Now that's going to sound... I hope that doesn't sound too bad.
[Dan] That is the most backhanded...
[Brandon] But it does...
[Dan] It is true, though. You're absolutely right.
[Mary] No he's not, actually. There are times... If it's the casual foot-in-the-mouth... But if you are offensive, if you are offensive and if you are someone who drinks and says stuff without thinking about it, do not drink at conventions. Know what you are doing. It's like... Because people will remember when you're offensive and they will talk about it.
[Brandon] It is a close knit community. I'm just kind of repeating what I heard an editor say. Apparently the editor sitting on a panel got lots of questions about "I've sent this to an editor. They rejected it and mentioned something stupid I did in it. Is my career over?"
[Mary] Oh. That kind of thing. Yes.
[Brandon] The editor said specifically, "You're not important enough to remember. Sorry."
[Mary] In terms of stuff that you do in the submission pile, I completely agree with that. Stuff you do in person...
[Brandon] That's true and it's... People get scared about this because it is a tightknit community. There are certain... Even in submission piles, stories get passed around, where there's this completely offensive cover letter that a couple of editors get and suddenly the entire community is reading it and talking about it. So we're just going to assume you're not a complete jerk. We're just going to think... This information goes for the authors who sometimes get neurotic about the little things that they do. The idea is... I'm trying to get across that I don't want you to stop writing, because you're so worried about something that you've done. Get over it. Move on. Do be nice to everybody. Don't swear at Tom Doherty. But if you do, keep writing.

[Howard] Easy rule of thumb. It's the opposite rule of thumb that malpractice attorneys will give to their doctors that they represent, and that is freely apologize and take responsibility.
[Brandon] That's true.
[Howard] If you've done something wrong, say, "I am so sorry. Oh, my goodness, I shouldn't have said that. I'm sorry." Be genuine.
[Mary] If you mean it, the next step is, "And what can I do to make it better?"
[Howard] Yes.

[Brandon] All right. So. Writing prompt regarding having fail happen in your career. Does anyone want to tackle this one?
[Mary] Yeah. Write a character... Explore this in fiction. Write a character who really screws up and have... Then get them to the moment when they realize they have to make the apology.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.

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