Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A Snarkling Seeks Answers

Miss Snark had a thought-provoking post on Tuesday here.

A snarkling wrote in to ask when one should give up. When should a writer decide he cannot write and is, in fact, wasting time by continuing to try?

Miss Snark gave a very generous and kind response, pointing out that publication does not have to be the only goal of a writer, that the very act of writing offers other valuable rewards.

Most of the snarklings were "whelmed" by what they saw as an uncharacteristic reply, far from the usual snarkiness. Those who've read MS' column from its inception nearly two years ago were less surprised by her kindness.

While admiring Miss Snark's graceful response, I had a different reaction. I heard the writer saying that he had run out of ideas, out of options. He was disheartened, dispirited and grieving.

I spent a decade as a manager in the public sector. For ten years, I managed teams ranging from a dozen workers to more than 300 people.

As a manager, I spent my days seeking to inspire the best possible performance out of staff. During my tenure, I was also forced to instigate a fair number of terminations of employees. It was a point of pride with me that, although my company was notorious for backing down when threatened by legal action, none of my terminations was ever overturned.

I had a formula that I followed when counseling individuals whose performance was questionable. I'm going to share my five steps with you and explain the parallels I see to the snarkling's cry for help:

1) Does the person understand her job description? Does she know what is expected of her?

2) If she understands her job description, does she know HOW to do the job? Does she have the necessary skills?

3) If she knows what's expected of her and she knows how to do the job, are there external obstacles preventing her from being successful?

4) If the employee knew what was expected and how to do the job and did not indicate there were any obstacles, I began to look at the person herself and at internal obstacles. Did she have a negative or arrogant attitude? Did she display self-defeating behaviors? Could I do anything to help her overcome personality issues preventing her success?

5) Only when I had gone through all of the four previous steps would I initiate a termination. Since I outlined the five steps we'd be taking at the beginning of my sessions with the staff member and was very open about where we were in the process, a termination NEVER came as a surprise. I was committed to reclaiming under-performing staff members and succeeded more often than I failed.

Let's pretend for a moment that the writer who contacted Miss Snark is someone we're counseling, using my five-step method. Let's see where it leads us:

1) Does the person understand his job description? Does he know what's expected of a writer, of an agent and of an editor? Or does he believe that, once he finishes his first draft, he'll drop it in the mail and expect that an agent or editor will proof the manuscript and correct all his errors? Does he expect someone else to turn his 175K-word opus into a 100K-word professional work?

2) If he understands his job description, does he have the skills to do the job? Can he construct a viable sentence? Does he understand grammar? Does he have a solid vocabulary, or is he constantly using words inappropriately? Does he understand a hook and pacing and characterizations?

3) Are there external obstacles preventing his success? Is he marketing his novel as a sci-fi fantasy thriller with romantic elements instead of as an urban fantasy? Is his query letter a laundry list of events? Is he using a shotgun approach instead of targeting the appropriate editors and agents?

4) Does he have self-defeating behaviors? Does he ignore critique advice and feedback from other writers? Is he convinced that the agents are wrong about breaking his 220K-word manuscript into two separate manuscripts? Is his need to control every aspect of production (cover, blurb, manuscript) so strong that he cannot accept an editor's advice? Does he personalize professional feedback?

5) You can see how any of the above can sidetrack a writer from the path to traditional publishing. I am particularly concerned when I encounter a writer stuck in Step #4. I've done tons of critiques with writers who think I'm being too hard on them or their manuscript. Invariably, they respond, "Well, no one else has said that to me." At that point, I mentally shrug and say out loud, "And I could very well be wrong. I'm not infallible, you know. You asked for my opinion, and I'm being as honest as I can."

It's a lot easier to say to someone, "Wonderful manuscript. You're ready to begin querying." It's tough to say, "I think you've got some work to do yet."

Learning to suck it up and overcome the internal obstacles that prevent success is one of the hardest lessons an aspiring writer faces. If she can't take that final leap to becoming a professional, she may be forever stuck in that rut of #4--nearly there, but not quite ready to cross over into a new profession.

Just one writer's opinion . . .

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