Monday, February 9, 2009

Living Is Optimism

Hi! I have a question, and I'm not trying to be funny, I swear. I've noticed that editors often use words like "tomorrow" and "by Friday" and "next week" (in reference to when I should expect an offer, or a production schedule, or a set of proofs, or whatever). It virtually never does come tomorrow or Friday or next week, and generally, these promises are followed by months of radio silence.
I know editors are insanely busy, but what puzzles me is, if things always take a great deal longer than expected, why do they keep on specifying "tomorrow" or "by Friday" or "next week"? Why don't they say "sometime in the next three months" if that's what's most likely?
I know all about this, having been guilty of it myself. And I look at my coworkers, and see a lot of myself in them. So in the spirit of self-awareness, I'm going to share something really true about editors:

1. Editors are almost always smart people who know how they want the world to be.
2. There's a little OCD running around in the make-up of many editors, and plenty of over-achiever-ship.
3. Editors are constantly saved and undermined by their optimistic natures.

So we know clearly what we think we ought to be able to promise people (point 1), and we very much want to promise it to them (point 2), and we will promise it to them (point 3).

And to be fair, we come through on a lot of our promises-- but we come through most on the promises to the projects that are not only signed up but whose late schedules/emergencies are screaming like hungry children.

The promises we do not come through on nag at us and make us feel guilty. I understand your plea for realism in projected dates, but realistically? If I told someone I would get back to them in three months, my brain/workstyle would categorize that task as too far in the future to keep track of, and forget about it entirely. If I told someone I would do something in three months, it would not happen.

And I suppose that when I think hard about how long everything takes--and how fast it all goes by for me (it's February?! Where did January go? Where, for that matter, did November and December go?! It still feels like fricking October to me!), the truth is that I'm a little terrified that if I started being honestly realistic with myself, I would realise that this is an impossible job; a treadmill that will always go a bit faster than I can run; a black hole in my life that is sucking everything-- including eating and sleep, not just hobbies and any kind of outside life-- into itself.

So I'm not going to. I'm at work this morning, and I'm glad to be. I have a challenging, creative job in children's books--doing something that matters to me. I'm going to follow through on at least one promise today. And deal with at least three emergencies. And try like hell to get back to several agents.

And if my best is never, not once in my whole career, quite enough, I will at least know that I did my best, all the time, and that is enough.


Susan Adrian said...

I love this post! It makes *sense* to me, and I so understand the living is optimism thing. :)

moonrat said...

oh my god. i'm totally guilty of this. i always swore i'd never be one of THOSE editors, and now i'm up there with the best (worst?) of them.

Jolie said...

My goodness. This is an unusually warm post coming from you, EdAnon. I think I like it.

It irritates the piss outta me when friends say they'll do something/be somewhere by a certain time, when they know it's not possible. But I do it sometimes, too. I certainly understand the mental organization aspect of the problem -- that if you don't say you'll do it ASAP, it won't land on your internal priority list. Still, maybe we could all try to be a little more honest by telling people, "I'll do my very best to get this done by X time," instead of making a straight-up promise that we're likely to break.

MAGolla said...

Yeah, I get it. I used to work in a hospital lab. Many a time a doc would call and want some results. As I was talking to said doc, I'd be searching for the patient's blood, only to find it hasn't been drawn yet, it's on a phelb's tray, or the darn machine didn't read the barcode (too crooked or not turned in the right way).
Yeah, I'd lie, but once I had the specimen on the machine I usually padded the finish time by five minutes in case I had to verify a result. I never failed to meet my deadline and if it was out of my hands, I would inform the doc of the situation. Sometimes I got chewed on, and other times, the docs were great. The nice ones got the personal call to give them the results. The jerks had to look it up in the computer.
The key is to do what is in your power, but a little padding isn't remiss. Send yourself little reminders or put them in your outlook calendar.
Oh, and I ALWAYS got high marks for my 'efficiency'. ;-) go figure!

Anonymous said...

OK, well, here's the other question - what is with the radio silence part?

I mean, I can totally see not getting to something by Friday even if you want to and you've said you will. Not that you are lying, of course, but that you are being overly optimistic and telling the agent/author things that you would ideally like to be true.

BUT, when you DON'T get to that thing, and a week passes, and then another week, and then another, and the curious agent or author drops you a line like "Hey you, I know you are busy, just checkin' in, how does it look"...





Sarah Laurenson said...

Isn't Y2K about to happen?

I agree. Time flies or just disappears altogether.

Anonymous said...

"Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place."
The Red Queen

AgentOfChange said...

Pretty much all goes for agents too - well, it does for me.

I mut get back to reading a client's manuscript that I said I would have notes on for December...

Jo Treggiari said...

Seems like it's a slippery slope. Good to read posts like this because it reminds me that editors are humans after all and scrambling just like the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

Not at all to negate the endearing answer you've just given, EA, but I do have to agree with Anon 11:37 on this one. It isn't so much that you said "tomorrow" but really mean "two months," it is that there is no communication of this change of plan to the writer. Even after they email politely to ask. We get that everyone is busy. We don't get why you make us guess what is wrong. We aren't mind readers. It only takes half a second to send an email to update us. That isn't asking a lot.

You'd be amazed how forgiving and understanding writers are when they are kept in the loop. But getting no information truly makes you feel like your book is not important to the agent/editor.

If writers acted in a similar manner concerning their own deadlines they wouldn't get another book deal. You want that by Tuesday? Sure, I'll get it to you next month. Or not. You know, whenever. :)

Anonymous said...

If what is offered us here is any indicator, than I am sure that you do better than your best EA.

You have a generosity of spirit and knowledge, but most importantly you offer it in an holistic way.

(Have some fun outside of this too. Okay. Bowling is something I do for pure fun...I suck at it but revs me.)

Anonymous said...

Ha, thank you EA, this was perfectly timed! I'm an editor and was due to send an edit back to a wonderful author on Friday. It's taking longer than expected (not because of any major problem - it's just slightly more fiddly than anticipated), so I emailed the author on Friday afternoon to say "Sorry, not going to make it, will Monday be OK?"
It's now mid Tuesday afternoon where I am, and I've neither sent the edit nor emailed another update. I know I should at least drop the author another line.
Why don't I? A combination of guilt, dumb hope that somehow it'll be ready in the next few hours, a sense of futility - what's the good of yet another "still nothing for you" email? - etc...
Luckily, in this case, the author owes me something too -- another bit of the manuscript. It was also due on Friday -- we were going to "swap" -- and is also running late. I haven't had an update about this from the author, which suits me fine -- at least we're both as bad as each other!
Bless you, EA! You haven't relieved my conscience, but at least I know I'm not the only one to play these silly mind games with myself when it comes to deadlines.

Anonymous said...

Very timely for me. I was starting to think I'd done something wrong and that was the reason for what seemed to me, lies.

I think the radio silence is the guilt btw.


Anonymous said...

I love this discussion. My former agent drove me crazy with her unfulfilled promises. I'm waiting to hear from an agent who said she'd get back to me in a week or so, and it's now been over a month. As someone above suggested, why don't you all simply use the word "try"? I'll try to get back to you in a week. Outside publishing, with friends, the same holds true. If you say "try," and not promise to do something, then everything's OK. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Keep your word. It's really very easy.

none said...

It only takes half a second to send an email to update us. That isn't asking a lot.

Sorry, but this drives me crazy! It takes me longer than half a second to send an email to someone pointing out we don't accept email submissions, and HERE is the submission form, and I have a stock email I use for that.

It comes down to what you'd rather the editor was doing--emailing everyone to keep them updated on progress, or actually, yanno, making some progress. Silence isn't indifference. Silence is working!

Angie said...

I'm not an editor, but I live in this sort of situation. EdAnon said it very well with (3).

And I think I can help with the silence part. My internal dialogue in this situation goes something like this.

"Oh no, I promised that for last Tuesday, and they want a status. I can't tell them I haven't touched it, I'll just finish it right now and THEN get back to them. Ugh, but first I need to ..."

Next thing you know, you haven't finished or responded in much more time than you ever meant to.

Anonymous said...


I've been a working freelance writer, editor and teacher for 12 years now...and I define "working" as someone who makes a living at this...and what this almost industry-wide behavior boils down to is you act this way because you CAN.

Writers put up with your collective bad behavior because they want to be published and since there will always be more writers than you need, you will always be able to get away with this I'm-too-busy-to-have-good-manners-BS.

But here is one small thing you might want to think about...I have been listening to editors and agents complaining for years about the quality of the submissions that have been crossing their desks. Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps I am not the only professional writer who has made the choice not to go into book publishing because of the truly rotten impression you all have made on me as a group?

There are a lot of factors included in that impression, including low pay, strangling contracts, little support, decision by committee, but most aggravating believe it or not, is the lack of professionalism and commonly practiced business manners that would not fly in ANY other business, with the possible exceptions of government and the now-floundering financial institutions.

My business, and indeed most businesses, depends on a symbiotic relationship with our clients. They need me and I need them and for the most part we try to be pleasant and polite about it. If I followed the business model of big publishing, at least in how they treat their writers, I would be living in a cardboard box over behind the restaurants on Center St.

We are ALL busy. We are ALL scrambling, especially these days. We ALL have to manage our lives and our work and our projects, short term, long term and even GASP! projects, like retirement or college for the kids that are years off.

Put on your big girl panties and act like a professional for God's sake.

If your excuse is this is how your brain/workstyle works, I can't help but wonder if your brain/workstyle would still function this way if you suddenly found yourself having to work outside the world of publishing. Could you feed your kids or your cat with this same workstyle if you were say, freelancing, or waitressing or working in health care?

Just a little food for thought and hopefully, you'll never have to be the one delivering it to the table.

Sarah Laurenson said...

You do make some good points Anonymous.

In my job - yes, there are penalties for being late and schedule is stressed as being of utmost importance. Mostly that's because we have blown schedules out of the water in the past. So the culture is changing and that is being overly stressed.

One of the other cultural aspects that is slow to change is showing up on time for meetings. Dragging in 5 or 10 minutes late was the norm. We still have our hold outs who think the work they're doing is more important than respecting everyone else's time. But meetings now start on time and go on without them.

I think when the culture of the job is geared in a particular direction, people will flow that way unless they have a strong inclination not to. Seems like the publishing culture is exactly what EA wrote here. Not saying this is a good thing or that this excuses the lack of communication. It just is.

Changing how the work is accomplished in a large industry is difficult. And sometimes it does mean one individual will stand out - a lot - when doing it differently.

I hate when I am told that I will hear in a certain amount of time and I don't hear anything for far longer than that. But I am also seeing that across the board in this business and have started making alternate plans to deal with this. I have no control over what another person does. I do have control over how I react to it - just as you've said, you made the decision to not seek book publication because of the way this business is run.

Editorial Anonymous said...

I do understand (and agree with) the frustration over weeks upon weeks of absolutely no answer whatsoever.

Perhaps we (editors) should try to send more very short answers (ie, "So sorry; still trying to make that happen; more soon.)

That does take very little time.

That said, there are plenty of people who would find a series of non-answers like that JUST as frustrating as silence. Have you ever been in a restaurant that's short-staffed, thinking, "Dammit, I asked for a glass of WATER. How long does it TAKE?" Well, that's publishing.

And as BuffySquirrel points out, simply replying with a short paragraph to everyone who wants something could sometimes take up AN ENTIRE DAY. So you do sometimes have to choose between making progress and reporting about your progress (in which case the report would be "no progress").

And there are a tremendous number of people who don't seem to appreciate the overload that makes such short answers necessary; I regularly get short-fire emails from agents with a series of low-priority questions that I wish they would attempt to answer themselves.

So we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place and a prickly place and a time bomb.

And in terms of the Anonymous just above, there's certainly more than one way to see everything.

If we are, in fact, doing this "because we CAN", then it's either because we're insensitive power-trippers or because we're lazy. I would myself question what insensitive person wants to create books for children; what power-hungry person wants to be alternately condescended to and manipulated for working in children's books; what lazy person works late and into the weekends on a regular basis for no extra pay.

And if we are, in fact, just whining about a situation that many people find themselves in, I can only say that to my eyes, the editors I know are among the most highly-functioning people I have ever met, as well as the most dedicated and overworked. (And I mix with attorney generals and school teachers and owners of their own businesses, so I know a hell of a lot of high-fuctioning, dedicated people.)

But that's just my view, and every reader is welcome to judge me by the content of this blog; I'm sure it speaks volumes about me whether I intended it to or not.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Lazy? Hah! When I hear about how an editor's typical day runs, lazy is not even close to the front of the pack. You guys get burned out on a regular basis because of the workload.

Perhaps a post on what a typical day is like for you might help. I know that has helped me not choose editing as a career option in the past. ;-)

Kidlitjunkie said...

Yes to all of the above, but I have to say--I have often wondered the same thing about my authors. Why do they promise me things by Friday when we both know it's not gonna happen?

Two sides of the coin, my friends.