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Cat Rambo

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On Ethics, and Editors, and Online Interactions [May. 21st, 2008|12:48 pm]
Cat Rambo
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Will Entrekin has posted about editors behaving badly, as has Will Shetterly.

Like Entrekin, I totally agree that writers should not reply to rejection slips. This is bad form.

And I agree with both Wills that editors should behave professionally. I realize, though, that not everyone feels the same.

Among the many approaches to editing, various assumptions play a part.  One, which I'll call the Squelch theory, buys into the notion that writers should be squelched as firmly as possible in order to drive out the weak-willed. This approach regards writing as an endless,
inexhaustible supply, and indeed this may be the case, but I am not sure the same holds true of the very highest quality writing. (And what constitutes "quality" writing is a discussion for another time.) The Squelch theory holds to the Nietzechean principle that what does not kill you only makes you stronger.

In this spirit, the Squelch theory administers feedback in a way that means to discourage some writers from writing again. Sometimes this feedback can be scathing or downright mean.  As such it may winnow the field, but in a way that I would argue promotes the survival of the thick-skinned rather than the talented.

There's a lot of chaff out there, but personally I prefer to winnow as much of it as possible in order to extract as much good stuff as I
can. Paging through the Fantasy Magazine slushpile is like panning for gold, and I like to dip my sieve deep.  So I don't buy into Squelching.

I also don't do it because I don't believe in being mean to people. I find such acts as rude and socially unacceptable as physically assaulting a person. I realize many people don't feel the same, and I'm pretty inured to them.  I've been around the Internet since ARPAnet days and an early BBS called Note. I have seen flames fashioned of vitriol and the insides of stars and flung a few myself from time to time.

And I have run two MUDs, multiplayer online games populated primarily by geeks and nerds, all of them bright as buttons.  The populations of these MUDs have ranged from the very young to the older hardcore computerheads.  I have written hundreds of administrative e-mails over the course of two decades dealing with personalities that included the crazy, the passionate, the well-intentioned, and the misdirected.  I have yet to find a case where a polite/professional e-mail was not the best answer to any of them.

Do I believe that sometimes a blow, verbal or physical, is the best way to teach someone something? No. I agree that it can be an effective way to teach, but I do not agree that it is the best way.  I do not feel that amusing myself by hurting other people is an ethical act.  I believe violence perpetuates violence, and that such acts erode society and prevent us from moving forward. This is my belief, and I realize and acknowledge that not everyone shares it.

Unlike me, some Squelchers believe verbal attacks are valid forms of self-expression, that they are harmless entertainment or
socially-instructive. Or that they are justified in some other way -- a belief that people are stupid sheep, or that the Universe is at its heart unfair, or that they are owed permission to perform them from some entity.

Therefore, it is important to remember that when you submit something to an editor, you are agreeing to play by their terms.  Adherents of the Squelch theory are public about their methods. AlienSkin has its Hall of Shame where it identifies guideline offenders by name, as does Nick Mamatas when discussing bannings on his LJ. Enter at your own risk.

Remember that the risk may be worth it. Writers may well get better feedback from the Squelchers than the non-Squelchers.  Mamatas is direct and precise, identifying exactly what in wrong with a story, along the lines of "Get rid of the infodump at the beginning" and has influenced the way I look at and edit scene breaks.  By contrast, I tend not to say "Your writing is not of the caliber I'm looking, you need to learn the basics of story telling, and your story should not be all one long paragraph in 8 point font" because I don't want to argue with people about things like the strategy behind their use of future tense.

Part of the reason for this is also that unlike the Squelchers, I don't have a commitment to the Darwinian onslaught on the writing population driving me to administer correctives.  People learn as much from continuing to work on story after story as they do from quick bursts from the verbal cannon, and I leave it to that slower force to instruct them.

As an editor, I consider my main job not improving the pool of writing, but rather the assembling and publishing of fiction of consistently high quality.  Like every editor,  I have strong opinions about clarity of language as well as the ethics of fiction, including the writer/editor relationship.  I try to treat the writers in the way I prefer editors deal with me: professionally and informatively.  I do not discourage new writers, and I try to give them encouragement and useful feedback when I have the bandwidth, but I do not give them the same degree of attention that a Squelcher may. This is worth writers taking into consideration.

There are some writers who won't submit to various Squelcher-run magazines because of their policies. It's something I'm starting to think about, but I will admit that Clarkesworld pays very nicely indeed, and much better than the more-politely run Fantasy Magazine.

This is the Internet. Your mileage may vary.

[User Picture]From: jtglover
2008-05-21 08:22 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting about this. I frequently read tales of unprofessional writers, likewise complaints about mean editors, but it's interesting to read what editors think about the process of editing (beyond the basics of slush).

One question: do you think it's appropriate to respond to rejections with brief notes of thanks if said rejections include feedback?
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[User Picture]From: cucumberseed
2008-05-21 08:30 pm (UTC)
This is also my question, though, I can see where any note of thanks for reading is likely to come off as snark or sour grapes.

Edited at 2008-05-21 08:30 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2008-05-21 10:25 pm (UTC)
The best way is to include the "thank you for the feedback" in the cover letter of your next submission. It's a bit time-consuming and a bit annoying to get thank-yous at random, especially when the inbox is already full to bursting.

A partial exception: if the feedback helped you sell the story to a quality venue, I at least am always pleased to hear it.
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[User Picture]From: jtglover
2008-05-22 12:28 am (UTC)
That's good to know! Thank you.
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[User Picture]From: cucumberseed
2008-05-22 01:31 am (UTC)
Good to know. Thanks!
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[User Picture]From: buymeaclue
2008-05-22 03:12 pm (UTC)
I'm not Cat, either, but I edit, and I've never minded thank you notes. They're certainly not required and sure, as with anything, there are ways to make them creepifying. But a sincere and concise expression of gratitude? That's never, ever going to bother me, and I'm only human: it's nice to hear that my work is doing some good.
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[User Picture]From: rachel_swirsky
2008-05-21 10:19 pm (UTC)
I'm not Cat, of course, but I do edit PodCastle.

I would generally recommend against sending short notes of thanks, unless the exchange between you and the editor has included something out of the ordinary, or something personal (not personalized, but actually personal, as in about you two as people).

It's not that I object to thank you letters, exactly. I don't remember the names of people who send them. But I usually approach them with a degree of annoyance, since before I open the email I know they could be a nasty response or a rapid turn-around submission. And often the thank you notes we get have a whiff of strangeness to them, as if the author feels like they've been interviewing for a job or something.
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[User Picture]From: jtglover
2008-05-22 12:32 am (UTC)
a whiff of strangeness to them,

Although I'm all for weird fiction, this I maybe don't want to associate with myself. Thank you!
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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2008-05-21 08:24 pm (UTC)
Actually, only in rare cases do I mention names when discussing the banned. Those cases are when the ban is in response to the person making a physical threat, an attempt at fraud (usually trying to sell a reprint as an original story) when the speaker either outs himself or herself (when he or she blogs about it first) or when the speaker essentially insists on being outed, as in the most recent banning when I was told to find impartial observers. Of the nineteen people banned, five have been named.

I do wonder though, if not naming all of them has led to such assumptions as I see in your post. Not everyone who argues with a rejection is a new writer or in need of instruction. A fair number of them not only should know better, but do know better -- they simply don't believe that an editor other than Gardner Dozois should be treated as anything other than a piece of shit, and act accordingly.

As far as the "squelching theory" the coinage itself in intrinsically biased, and its description is nothing I believe in so there is no reason to tie my name or Clarkesworld to it. One may as well look at this post and declare that Cat Rambo believes in the "Faux Moral Superiority Through Docile Martyrdom" theory, which would be as loaded and as inaccurate.

Finally, when it is clear that a writer needs to learn the basics of storytelling, then yes, "You need to learn the basics of storytelling; we recommend reading much more, at least a book a week, and plenty of short stories" is the sort of feedback they will get. It's no surprise that the feedback you've received is more precise, because that's what you rate and what you know what to do with. If you've compared notes with writer comrades, well, I wouldn't be surprised that as a good writer you know other good writers. At any rate, not a month goes by when we don't get an email saying something like, "Thanks! I took your criticism and sold the story to Cemetery Dance/Asimov's/Weird Tales, etc."

That's about as far from squelching as I can possibly conceive.

Edited at 2008-05-21 08:59 pm (UTC)
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From: ktempest
2008-05-22 06:54 pm (UTC)
Been off the net for a couple of days, so I'm just seeing this conversation. But ti was described to me by people at KGB yesterday, and that's just as good! I remember thinking at the time that the Squelching method is similar to what Gardner was up to with that annoying form letter of doom when he edited Asimov's. And while I heard plenty of people complain about that rejection letter in private, I don't recall ever hearing about people taking Gardner to task personally. It may be as Nick said, many folks feel that Gardner deserved respect as an editor, especially if they wanted to be published by him someday.

But an increasing amount of people don't feel the same way about other editors. Not just Nick. Every time I have deigned to dip a toe into the slush waters I racked up quite a few stories for the Authors Behaving Badly sessions. And many times, as Nick said, it comes from people who ought to fucking know better.

One of the reasons I don't slush anymore is because I got tired of being disrespected. Beyond people who just won't follow guidelines, format things correctly, and the like, there's people who want to argue with you about what you said in the rejection (from detailed notes on why to the form response "the beginning didn't engage me") or call you a hack who can't recognize talent. It's enough to make me want to start writing rejections that say, "Please don't ever write fiction again. The monastery is really a better life choice" or "I'm glad I have your address, because I can send the police to your house since this is clearly what you fantasize about at night you child molesting satanist" and other things in-between. But this is all considered bad form. Thus my abstention from the slush pile.

Being professional does not always mean being polite. But being a hard-ass doesn't make you a better/more professional editor, either.
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[User Picture]From: nihilistic_kid
2008-05-22 08:05 pm (UTC)
I've heard a few people complain about Dozois's form letter, but not any stories about people firing back with a nasty letter. Perhaps email does make it easier, perhaps the slushreaders dealt with all the nasty letters and Dozois never saw them, perhaps he was respected (or the magazine was), or perhaps Dozois was just not into karma. Likely a smattering of all of the above.

One of the reasons I don't slush anymore is because I got tired of being disrespected.

And this is part of the reasoning for my method -- people do treat waitstaff, phone center people, grocery store clerks, and many other people who have to engage with the public terribly, and because that work comes cheap nobody stands up for them. The "Let me stand still and smile pretty while you throw shit at me" method of "ethical, professional" editing will just mean exactly what we are seeing -- more venues closing off slush piles and depending on solicitations. Most anthos work this way already, as does Subterranean, one half of Clarkesworld, etc.
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[User Picture]From: selfavowedgeek
2008-05-21 08:40 pm (UTC)

Thanks, Cat

RE: "People learn as much from continuing to work on story after story as they do from quick bursts from the verbal cannon, and I leave it to that slower force to instruct them."

Slow and steady wins the race. Once I made a committment a few years ago to writing eight to twelve stories a year (I teach full time and have a family, so that number of stories is pretty good for me), I had product. Said product then went through my own revision/editing queues, then out across the cyber-transoms. More wasn't necessarily _better_ for me, but it has become _formative_. And each year a few more stories get picked up than the year before.

Don't recall ever arguing with an editor, but whenever I can, I will provide a short reply of "Nevertheless, thank you for your time," to a rejection.

Arguing with an editor over a rejection makes about as much sense as getting fired from a job, then yelling, "Well, yeah!?! Then I QUIT!" on the way out the door--counterintuitive, especially considering we're all running in such relatively small circles in the writing, editing, and publishing world.

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[User Picture]From: criada
2008-05-21 08:43 pm (UTC)
My roommate is currently deciding if she's ready to submit herself to Nick Mamatas. I say he can't be any harsher than those of us in her writing group, but sometimes advice feels worse coming from a pro.

I helped out Spencer at a slush party last weekend and got a query from a couple who didn't even describe the book, just said they had one and would we like to look at it. They obviously were new, and I really wanted to explain to them that you had to actually describe your book, but the evening was late, my brain was melted, and every response I could think of was snarky, so I sent them a form letter, which made me feel bad, since the form letter, "this isn't what we're looking for right now" may have been a lie, but I couldn't know.
(By the way, thanks for providing the opportunity to let me meet Spencer. He and Krissy are awesome.)
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[User Picture]From: kynn
2008-05-22 05:42 pm (UTC)
My roommate is currently deciding if she's ready to submit herself to Nick Mamatas.

But is she ready to submit her short stories?
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-05-21 08:57 pm (UTC)
It is funny how much of life boils down to "We should just be cool to each other"

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[User Picture]From: leahbobet
2008-05-22 01:38 am (UTC)
Most of it, yeah.
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From: ex_benpayne119
2008-05-21 09:12 pm (UTC)
Nice post. I'm inclined to agree with you re: Darwinism. There are those who believe in the tough love theory but personally I prefer less agressive methods.
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[User Picture]From: skaldic
2008-05-21 09:42 pm (UTC)
It seems to me that there's a difference between Squelching and providing detailed and plain comments. If the comments give details and possibly suggestions, even very detailed ones without tact or polite embellishment, but without any personal criticism, that (to me) isn't squelching -- that's an editor taking a lot of time doing something that could help the writer. If the editor says "you suck" or "your writing sucks" or "you clearly can't tell a decent story" -- that (again, to me) is squelching. To me, those are two distinctly different things. The first one (which is IMO where Nick Mamatas and Clarkesworld fall) is useful and not personal, and if the author is at all smart, they'll take the information and use it to their advantage. Some might be turned off, or scared away, but those are the ones who can't take the criticism we all need to improve our craft. But it's not mean. The second is more the Harlan Ellison-type approach, which could scare away the best of us.
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[User Picture]From: rachel_swirsky
2008-05-21 10:14 pm (UTC)
"as does Nick Mamatas when discussing bannings on his LJ. Enter at your own risk."

To my knowledge, Mamatas has named three banned people directly.

One person outed herself on her blog, and he linked to her. One person harrassed Mamatas, including threatening to sue him and replacing his website with an attack on Mamatas.

The third was yesterday. Mamatas says he outed him because the man commented that impartial observers would think the banning unfair.

If I were Mamatas, I would not have outed the third person.

However, I don't think it's reasonable to impute bad motives to him on the basis of the first two. He doesn't usually name people.


I attempt to be polite with PodCastle rejections -- and like you, that means that if I have a note that's too cruel to say to someone directly (like "This story's idea is trite") I will either try to say it nicely ("I feel I've seen this story before") or say nothing.

But I don't mind notes like Nick's, and I certainly don't think he's doing anything wrong in offering blunt criticism. The most blunt letters of his that I've read were not as harshly worded as some criticisms I've heard in live workshops, and most I've seen are just accurate without being either kind or cruel. That said, of course, I only read those notes of his that friends send me, that he posts on his LJ, or that I've received, so I'm sure I don't have a full sample. I just don't know that I think of him as a squeclher.
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[User Picture]From: catsparx
2008-05-21 11:19 pm (UTC)
"I do not feel that amusing myself by hurting other people is an ethical act."

well said.
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[User Picture]From: buymeaclue
2008-05-22 03:30 pm (UTC)
In this spirit, the Squelch theory administers feedback in a way that means to discourage some writers from writing again.

So here's my problem with your Squelch theory...er...theory. It requires you to read minds. How do you know what other editors "mean" to do with these rejections that you think are too harsh?

I'd be interested to hear which folks have told you that their intention is to "discourage some writers from writing again". That's not what I hear from the folks that I've spoken with about this sort of thing. It's certainly not my intention--and I've written rejections every bit as scathing and probably less helpful (though I do try) as anything that comes out of Clarkesworld. (I've never seen an AlienSkin rejection, so I can't speak to those--though I'll note that's not the stated intention on their Hall of Shame page [which I do think is ridiculous, but that's neither here nor there].)

The other problem is this. Who gets to decide what counts as "being mean"? Some writers crumble to pieces in the face of feedback that struck me as not the slightest bit objectionable--sometimes even stuff that I thought was flat-out complimentary. Others writers absolutely thrive--and enjoy every second of it--under a drubbing that would make me roll over and show my belly. So who exactly am I supposed to write my rejection letters for, in order to avoid being perceived as mean? Maybe I should get Brett to change our guidelines to request an answer in every cover letter: "On a scale of 1 to 10, how thin-skinned are you?"

You say you don't discourage new writers, Cat, and I believe that's not your intent. But I don't for a second believe that it's the reality. New writers--and experienced one, and ones in the middle--are discouraged by _everything._ Or by nothing. You say that you'd rather "leave it to that slower force to instruct them" and I think that sure, if that's your philosophy, that's fair. But I also think that I've seen a zillion writers complaining about being discouraged because they don't get enough feedback. For example.

Being an editor means discouraging some folks along the way. That's just part of the gig. So you do the best you can, yes, and be proud of that. I've got no quibble with that at all.

But I do quibble, and strongly, with the idea that people who run their magazines differently--who discourage different people in different ways, and encourage other different people in other different ways--are being mean and malicious. That accusation isn't fair, or true, or kind.
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[User Picture]From: rachel_swirsky
2008-05-23 03:10 pm (UTC)
"Some writers crumble to pieces in the face of feedback that struck me as not the slightest bit objectionable--sometimes even stuff that I thought was flat-out complimentary. Others writers absolutely thrive--and enjoy every second of it--under a drubbing that would make me roll over and show my belly."

Ditto. I recently had a prominent author get very touchy -- not enough for an authors behaving badly story, or anything like that, but touchy -- with me for rejecting her story in glowing terms.

And of course there's *kinds* of feedback. The kind of feedback that was de rigeur at Iowa would upset and annoy me no end -- a lot of trying to recreate people's identities as writers. When I finally got someone who jusat went through with a red pen and said "this sucks, this sucks, this sucks, do what you're doing, but do it better," I was monstrously pleased, and many of the students I knew at the workshop who were happy with the criticism that makes me grit my teeth complained to me that this professor was cruel.
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From: luc1en72
2008-05-22 08:35 pm (UTC)
Your journal is beautiful!
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