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22:12:36: (The Elephant) has entered the chat.
cap, captain miss america
Notice: I have a lot of regular life stuff I want to post about but this was a surreal week and I just haven't been able to get my thoughts together. Also, my computer cable broke after I uploaded some of the Thanksgiving prep how-tos I meant to post, so they didn't happen. I'm on my netbook and eternally thankful that I am able to do things like afford a netbook to cover me for computing and communication purposes when my usual computer (which I am also eternally thankful for) gets broken.

Because of my job, I somewhat regularly meet Persons of Interest. I don't like to make a big deal about that, because it's just part of my work, and Persons of Interest are mostly normal folks like you and me. Anyway, a few years ago, I became engaged in a rather long conversation with a rather well-known writer. This person seemed to be terribly nice, and I really enjoyed speaking with them, and left the conversation delighted to have met them, and resolved to go read one of their books.

Imagine my dismay when I purchased one of their books, and about five pages in, had realized that it was so bad that it was practically unreadable. At least, for me. It had poorly-worded sentences and scenarios that were very poorly researched (I say as someone who is extremely familiar with what those scenarios would be like in real life).

I have experienced the opposite, too, when I have read a book I loved with all my heart, and then met the author behind the book and discovered that they were not a very nice person.

I'm still not sure which is worse. In some way, the latter is easier. As much as it stinks to discover that someone who inspires you is a jerk, it's also easy to either distance yourself from them as a person as long as you don't have to interact with them every day, or to just ignore their existence completely if you decide they're so irredeemable that you no longer want to read their work.

But what do you do when you meet a wonderful person, and are interacting with them in a way when their writing, or art, or other creative endeavor is necessarily going to be part of the conversation, and what they create just stinks? I'm not even talking about stuff that you can tell is good but isn't to your personal taste. I'm talking about stuff that you know on an objective level is making basic mistakes that the person in question should not be making!

We all know this happens-- it's just that people don't talk about it in public very often. I'm sure it happens in every field, practical and creative. For every writer who is a lovely person but a terrible writer, there is probably a chemist who is a lovely person but a terrible chemist, who strikes terror in the hearts of the other chemists because they adore this person but can't stand working with them because they make three times as much lab work for everyone else because they mess up their measurements. Or something-- I will admit I know very little about chemistry, so I'm kind of bullshitting here, and I know I already called that successful writer on that up a few paragraphs. But you get my idea!

The issue, though, is that if you have a bad chemist, it's quantifiable. You don't have to smile and lie through your teeth about how much you love their chemistry, because it comes down to statistics and results. With writing, it isn't. I mean, the person I mentioned above is a published and successful author! And plenty more people are convinced that they are wonderful authors, but just...aren't. Their prose might make your teeth stand on end, to mix a metaphor. Their essays may be disjointed and lack cogency. Their poetry...well, let's not even talk about bad poetry.

And even if it's not a matter of taste, even if someone's writing is truly awful, it's unlikely that anyone is going to tell them so-- because as much as it's easy to tell a jerk that they're terrible, it's really hard to tell someone whom you genuinely like that they're bad at something. Or even that you just plain don't like what they do.

And, you know, you probably don't want to. Because you know it's going to hurt their feelings in a lot of cases, and hurting the feelings of someone you genuinely like and care about is generally a good thing to avoid.

But what are your options? Do you lie? Tell them you really liked what they wrote, or that they're a wonderful writer?

That can ring just as false. We all receive those comments that we look at sidelong and think, 'hmm, did that person even READ what I just wrote?' And I think that when we're tempted to lie, even if it's one of those nice white lies to encourage someone we like, the lies often come out sounding flat, even if they don't sound outright false. A lot of non-specific adjectives like "wonderful" or "powerful" or "well-written" or adverbs like "beautifully" can sound this way, although I genuinely believe most of the time they are used in earnest, it gets kind of suspect when someone uses them all the time, everywhere, or repeatedly for the same person.

I don't think there's any need to tell someone who is a terrible writer that they're a terrible writer, but I also don't think there's any need to tell them there's a wonderful writer if you think that's a lie. It doesn't mean you can't leave a thoughtful and constructive yet non-critical comment to them!

How can you do this? There are a few ways:

--Look for a specific part that you think is stronger than the rest. Everyone hits on a gem sometimes. Comment on that specific part. Then you are helping the person you are commenting to, by letting them know what their strongest writing is, in your opinion, while also making it clear that you read and thought about their writing.

*Warning: resist the temptation to use this as an excuse to pay a backhanded compliment. "For me, the strongest part of this piece was when..." is a nice thing to tell someone. "I really liked the font and the space between the letters" is kinda jerky, unless the person in question is doing something experimental with fonts and negative space.

--Okay, so maybe their writing is just bad, all the way through. Is there something else about what they've written that you like? Maybe you thought it was an inspired idea, or maybe they took a risk by approaching a story from an unexpected viewpoint. Maybe they chose an interesting source to base their writing on. You can tell them this, and once again, it will be completely honest on your part, and show them that you've read and thought about their writing.

--Okay,so as much as you love and adore this person, they're not just crappy; they're crappy AND uninspired. You honestly can't find a single redeeming thing about what they've written. What do you do now? Well, what is their writing about? Is it something you have a basis for comparison with? For example, suppose it is a story about their cat's hairball. Do you have a cat who hairballs a lot? Do you have a cat at all? Do you have another type of pet? Do you know someone with a pet? Turn it into an opportunity to engage in some camaraderie with someone whose conversation you enjoy, even if you don't think they're the greatest writer in the world. Sharing anecdotes or feelings or anything at all is how we make friends!

To be perfectly fair, these are the same kinds of comments I like to try to leave to people whose writing I like. Everyone loves to get thoughtful comments that make it clear the commenter is engaged with their writing. It's not always possible-- sometimes you're out of brainpower, and other times, it would take too long to leave a longer comment-- but it's really nice when you can. It's just sometimes harder to think in those terms when you're talking about writing that you really had to grapple with just to get through. But it's not impossible.

Is that avoidant? I don't think so. Because just because someone isn't a great writer doesn't mean that they're not great at something else, and it doesn't mean they're not an awesome person to get to know. I tend to find that it's better to encourage people in the things that they are good at than to discourage them in the things they're bad at. Eventually, everyone will find something they're both good at and enjoy-- and who knows? They might just improve and write something you enjoy someday!

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i've had the same situation with art, especially at work or meeting people who work other places... and it's hard. It's even harder when they're in charge of you or in charge of a project. you love this person, you have to work with them everyday, but... dear God they're breaking the beakers!

Yeah, and I think it really is much harder when you really genuinely like the person and they're just not doing something they're good at. I've had this problem at jobs, too, and definitely in roleplaying. I have just met some sweetheart people who, the minute you let them run rampant with a character, you want to tear your hair out.

This just makes me think of the people I meet in fandom who are cool and amazing and great on the internet and then we hang out in person and they are a socially awkward mess in some way or incredibly shy or kind of pretentious or just some crazy elitist. And you're like "Fuck. But you're so cool on the internet."

Now I might add this to my small stack of potential topics for this week, actually. XD

Yeah! I wasn't even thinking about that, but it's true. Fortunately, I don't think I've had that happen too many times. But yeah, you want to keep talking to them online but then they're like, "wanna hang out?" and it's like, "ehhhh..." I do know a few people whom I love IRL and can't deal with online, which is a little weird, but is also kind of the same thing.

That is exactly how I comment!

Yeah! I think it's a good way to comment whether you like someone's writing or not. It's always nice to see a comment that makes it clear someone took the time to say something nice and personal about what you wrote.

Oh, lord, this brings back the worst memories of all my college workshops - and then we were SUPPOSED to be critical of each other, but in every class there was always someone who was super sweet and great about other people's work but couldn't string two words together herself. Usually everyone would go with option 1: Seize the one decent sentence and praise the crap out of it.

In your case (I'm dying to know who it is, btw) I'd really want to ask them about their experiences in getting published and how it came about. Which may be a little backhanded in my own head ("How did YOU get published?!") but might be an interesting insight into the sort of things publishers look for: To reach not-so-far for an example, everyone thinks Twilight is irredeemably crap, but it was a screamingly obvious hit for a publisher. And I imagine any published author would be happy to talk about how they hit it big.

I would never say who this was in public, partly because they were such a ridiculously nice person. And when it came to talking about reading and writing, they had really smart things to say-- they had helpful tips for understanding the writing process, for outlining and story planning, and stuff like that.

I think the difference is in whether you ask, "how did YOU get published?" and "HOW did you get published?"

Oh, I should also mention on that note, that I don't think that being a bad writer is equivalent to not having valuable things to say about writing.

Edited at 2010-11-26 04:38 pm (UTC)

This is a very awesome and informative post. Thanks for linking to it!

ETA, because, lol, I just realized how that could sound exactly like one of those 'I didn't read this but I'm commenting anyway' comments. That wasn't the case at all, and in fact, I was very intrigued with your apparent publishing-related career (like some other Idolers, this is a ~dream job for me), and I found the information useful.

I think, for the most part, that it was something I knew in the back of my mind, but it seems like I still go blank sometimes. I do try to choose things I liked about the post, but sometimes I do struggle, so this helps.

Edited at 2011-12-09 01:28 am (UTC)

No, it's cool! There's a difference to me about comments that people are leaving on something like this, that is supposed to be here for your information, and something like Idol where I think sometimes people just wonder if someone is out there reading or just commenting to "play the game."

I can tell you lots about my job if you want! It isn't a secret! I am currently a comic editor for King Features Syndicate, but I've been working in the arts for about fifteen years now and I have had a bunch of different jobs. I have a ton of friends who work in publishing here in New York, so if you ever have questions, please feel free to ask. If it's not related to my job, I probably know someone else who can answer it.

Ooh, how exciting! Were you a comic book reader before you started working there? I keep meaning to look into some of these graphic novels that get so much talk, but my reading list is already a yard long as it is. Unfortunately, I never got into comic books as a kid.

Were your other art jobs also book industry-related? I've been applying for internships in NYC like crazy lately, but mostly in supply chain management in the fashion industry (LV, Chanel, etc. Thing big, eh?) because I haven't been able to find a publishing house internship that will take someone with my credentials (management information systems) and I'm graduating in the summer, so I'll be ~out of college by the time they're taking interns on. I've decided to start looking at literary agencies over the Christmas holidays, and see if I can finagle something there, but I suspect that that'll be just as unlikely since I don't have so much as a journalism class under my belt. :P

NYC seems so exciting (it's gotta be better than Rochester, anyway) so I've really been applying all over the place with hope that I can find something I like that pays the bills so that I can be a writer on the side. Really, I'm just crossing my fingers that I don't end up with some darkened-back-office-keyboard-pounding SAP job. :P

I've worked for a few magazine (Rolling Stone, US Weekly, and Playgirl [yes I was an art director for a porn mag]), and for DC Comics as well. I've also worked for a webcomics company and this weird art collective conceptual art project turned mobile software company). Nothing specifically with books. However, I'm going out to lunch with several friends in the industry-- specifically in book publishing and I can ask around, and I'll take a look at the Hearst job board to see if there's anyone offering internships. My parent company owns a lot of newspapers, magazines, and a couple book imprints as well as having a digital arm and some television connections, so there are a lot of options there as long as they're looking for something like what you do.

Do you mind explaining what management information systems is a little more so I know I'm looking for the right thing? It's not something I'm familiar with.

I got this job through working in comics already, and yeah-- I was into strips when I was very young and then got interested in comic books when I was a teen. Now I work in strips.

Nothing wrong with working for a porn mag.

That's very kind of you! MIS covers "information/technology/people" as they like to remind us. It deals with a lot of ERP (enterprise resource planning/logistics/etc), supply-chain management, project management, and even some database, though that isn't my focus. I have a managerial accounting background, too, though I switched out of that major to MIS. I did look into the Conde corporations openings (Vogue, etc.), but nothing jumped out at me. I will check out Hearst, too!

PS - checking out your co's website now. I am interested in how the editing process for strips works. Do you edit the words or the art or both?

Edited at 2011-12-09 04:04 am (UTC)

We have proofreaders who edit the words for typos and things. As an editor, my job is more as a facilitator. We advise cartoonists, and let them know if we see something problematic in a strip. The amount of advice we give tends to have to do with the cartoonist. Some cartoonists prefer lots of advice, and send us rough drafts ("proofs") of every comic. We require that for new cartoonists. Others prefer that we only alert them if we see a problem. (like "I know you didn't mean this as a racist joke but people might see it that way, do you want to change it?" type stuff) So it runs the gamut. A lot of my work also involves providing services to cartoonists, like web design and maintenance, merchandise design, setting up Facebook pages, and a bunch of other non-editing stuff. I also read every submission we get from prospective cartoonists.

I think I may have access to a more complete job listing than people outside the company, so I'll double check that next week.

Oh, I see. Going by your posts in the Green Rooms/Work Rooms, I'd say you're the right person for that kind of job! It must be a very fun and satisfying career!

You are really so nice! You don't have to do this at all, but I'm not one to turn down a kindness. Thank you! Please let me know if I can ever do anything for you in the future!

Edited at 2011-12-09 05:26 pm (UTC)

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