“The great enigma of human life is not suffering but affliction.”
--Simone Weil

“The thing is, pitch meetings are just a bone that the editors throw out to the Newbies at these conventions. They don’t take them seriously. No editor is going to leave here after their pitch meetings with a book they intend to do anything with. The only do the meetings as a favor to the convention organizers.”

Me, I’m standing about six feet away from the person who is uttering these words to a captive audience (during a private party held during the 13th Annual World Horror Convention in Kansas City), and it’s taking all of my considerable powers of social restraint to not lunge across the room and feed this person the first twenty-four inches of my right leg. What they’re saying is bad enough; what’s worse, everyone surrounding them is nodding in agreement as if they’re for the first time hearing Gandhi utter Genuine Wisdom; and what’s even more terrible is that one of the people who’s sitting near me is a fellow writer who, after weeks of hard, intensely-focused work, proposal re-writes, and hours upon hours of rehearsals with Yours Truly, has just had the kind of pitch meeting writers dream about: not only was the editor bowled over by his pitch, not only did the editor tell him outright that his novel was “…just the type of book we’re looking for,” but said editor told him to send the entire manuscript “…as soon as possible.”

Now, this fellow writer had been a bit down before the convention, having just gotten another rejection in a seemingly endless string of no-thank-you’s that were mercilessly chipping away at his confidence. We’ve all been there, so I needn’t detail the specifics; suffice to say that these pitch meetings at the con were as close to a do-or-die situation for him as any of us would ever care to get. Until this moment, he’d been riding high on his pitch meeting success, but as the The Mouth (“Speaker” implies that they had something worthwhile to say and, trust me, they didn’t) continued pontificating, I watched my fellow writer slowly begin to deflate and sink back down into the pit of depression that had all but stymied him during the weeks prior to the convention.

I’m going to pause at this point to offer the Moral Of This Story, albeit a bit early. Ready? Here it comes:

Nobody’s Poop Smells Like Perfume. Yours and mine included.

We’ll move back into the room now, but not yet all the way back to The Mouth. We’ll stop for a moment and examine the irritated-looking fellow who’s leaning against the oversized faux-wood entertainment center, if you don’t mind.

Let me tell you something about his current state of mind and health before he arrived at this less-than-stirring floor show.

Since last year’s World Horror Convention in Chicago, he has buried his father, his grandmother, and his mother; he has recently moved to a new city; he has gone through an emotionally devastating divorce; he has undergone surgery to repair nerve damage in his right hand; and he has had a suicidal meltdown that landed him in The Bin for a while where they kept him doped to the gills and under constant observation.

In short, he ain’t exactly had what you’d call a banner year. He needed this convention to be a good one, not only personally, but professionally. And until The Mouth began talking, it has, indeed, been a very good convention for him. He’s met up with old friends he’s not seen for a while, made several new ones, gave a reading to a nearly-packed house, been invited into several anthologies, asked if he’d be interested in publishing some novellas, and has made, during an informal meeting, potentially the most important publishing deal of his life.

And now here he is, trying to decide if twenty-four inches of his right leg would fit down The Mouth’s throat, because the more The Mouth goes on (and on, and on, and on…) his fellow writer, the same writer who’s had that dream pitch meeting, is getting way too quiet as his shoulders slump and his fists clench and a Jesus-Have-I-Been-Kidding-Myself-And-It’s-All-Been-For-Nothing? gleam covers his bespectacled eyes.

Enough of this pretentious Third Person nonsense. Apologies all around.

I was half expecting my fellow writer -- let’s call him “Harris” -- to do one of two things: weep or start screaming.

Thankfully, he did neither (and take it from me, when Harris goes quiet for too long, it’s a bad sign).

As Harris sits there looking more and more humiliated, his wife is gently rubbing his back and looking at me with an expression on her face equal parts heartbreak and fury.

And still, The Mouth continues:

“Most of these Newbies don’t have the slightest idea how to do a pitch, anyway; it’s a waste of the editors’ time to listen to them. You know what we should do next year? We should offer something like pitch workshops to the Newbies. Get some writers who are willing to listen to the pitches and give the Newbies advice on how to make them better. We could charge fifty dollars a head for the workshops -- or more, depending on how much work the Newbies need.”

To which the audience once again nodded their heads; some quite vigorously.

I am now inwardly sorrowing.

It’s time to tell you something about The Mouth. You’ve probably heard of them; have, in fact, probably read some of their stories and books, as I have. The Mouth is a solid writer, no question about that. The Mouth’s work has been nominated for some lovely awards, which it deserves to be. But The Mouth suffers from an affliction that claims far too many writers early on in their careers, an affliction whose causes and effects are as follows:

  1. Writer makes first pro sale; ego and confidence are boosted.
  2. Writer makes second, then third, then fourth pro sales and so on; ego and confidence are further boosted.
  3. Writer then goes on to make first book sale; boost to ego and confidence from earlier successes cube themselves.
  4. Writer’s book receives good reviews and is perhaps nominated for an award or two; the ego/confidence factor is now being muscled aside by a burgeoning arrogance caused by a swelling of the cranium.
  5. Writer then attends conventions where readers of their stories and books clamor to tell them how wonderful their work is and by the way, would the writer mind autographing their book, it would mean so much; and here, dear friends, is where the affliction really takes hold: the writer is suddenly faced, possibly for the first time, with tangible evidence that people are not only paying for their stuff, but reading it, as well.

Who’d’a thunk it?

And thus affliction becomes disease, because the writer (and I’m talking about a very specific kind of writer here, more on that in a moment) not only begins to listen to the wonderful things the readers say to them, they begin to believe what they’re hearing.

It’s a rare bird who can hear dozens (if not hundreds) of people tell them, “Oh, God, your work is so wonderful! You’re such a great writer!” over and over and not get a little cocky; but most writers learn to accept readers’ praise gracefully and gratefully, all the while knowing that (as Stephen King said), “It is the tale; not he who tells it.”

But there’s a specific kind of writer for whom that last seems to never really fully register.

I’m talking about that nightmare of nightmares: The Big Success in the Small Press.

Don’t get your bowels in an uproar (as both my mom and dad used to say); I am not — hyphen, italicize for emphasis — not thumbing my nose at the Small Press; I am not saying that the Small Press isn’t very much worthwhile; I am not implying that Small Press publishers are a bunch of tunnel-visioned little dweebs who publish their dweeb buddies’ work for their dweeb buddies’ dweeb friends to dweeb all over at some Annual Dweeb Jamboree. I myself have seen more than a little success thanks to the Small Press and will be the first to tell you that a majority of the SP publishers out there are stand-up folks who do what they do out of love and respect for the field and pride themselves on publishing professional-level books.

Have we all got that? I am not castigating the Small Press.

I am, however, decrying a by-product of the Small Press. Think of the Small Press as being (for the purposes of this argument) cast in the role of Victor Frankenstein, trying to create something wondrous and new for the world, but at some point along the line Something (insert ominous chord here) Goes Terribly Wrong Through No Fault Of Theirs, and a monster is unleashed.

The Big Success in the Small Press suddenly begins thinking they know something the rest of us don’t, that the very limited demographic of readers they’ve met at conventions somehow represent the vast majority of the reading public (who, they seem to believe, is just rioting to read their work), and because of such grand delusions (which these writers have done nothing to rid themselves of), they now think they’ve earned the right to patronize, humiliate, belittle, demean, and mock fellow writers who, unlike their own aggrandized selves, are only starting out.

And they do this with one itty-bitty word; one that I heard enough during that convention to last me several lifetimes; one that is snarled in much the same way most people would snarl “child molester,” “rapist,” or “congressional representative.”

The word?

Newbie.”

Never have I heard a word spoken with such obvious disgust, condescension, and repugnance as it was spoken during this convention, and this private party, specifically.

I couldn’t help but wonder how The Mouth would feel if they knew there were at least three “Newbies” in that room. Maybe that’s why The Mouth felt compelled to deliver the sermon at just over five hundred decibels -- to make sure the up-and-coming competition in the room knew to stay in their place and let The Real Writers show ‘em what it’s all really about.

This kind of egotistical, self-important, narrow-minded, and exclusionary mentality in the horror field is, quite simply, beneath contempt. Period.

Consider, if you will, some of the brouhaha that erupted a few years back with the HWA. The younger and less seasoned members of the organization accused the older and much more savvy members (who were then in power) of having lost touch with the plight of their fellow writers who weren’t Names and weren’t getting the big advances and shelf space at the neighborhood Walpurgis-Mart, blah-blah-blah, boo-hoo, and so on. It would have been downright silly if it hadn’t gotten so uckfeying ugly. As a result of this vicious in-fighting, a lot of name professionals left the organization and not many of them have returned.

I cite this example to illustrate the undeniably hurtful and potentially long-term damage holier-than-thou attitudes like those bellowed by The Mouth can have if we don’t stop every so often to put our egos in check.

Nobody’s poop smells like perfume. Anyone who thinks they’re hot snot on a silver platter is more often than not just a cold booger on a paper plate. (Got that from a fortune cookie. Seriously.)

So I’m going to say the following in print to The Mouth and others like them (I have met others of The Mouth’s ilk too many times over the years) because I failed to fully speak my mind at the time:

How. Bloody. Dare. You.

How dare you think that because you’ve seen some measure of success in the Small Press that you’ve the right to look down your nose in disdain at fellow writers who are just learning the ropes. Do you have any idea how insulting you were (and probably still are)? Do you even care that while you were pontificating and those cowardly, sick-making, kiss-ass minions surrounding you were nodding their heads in blank-stared agreement, you nearly pushed not one, not two, but three “Newbie” writers over that edge of defeat and despair that has swallowed far too many of us over the years?

If that metaphor is a little too complicated for you, then I’ll put it like this: Because of your insipid, arrogant, ill-informed homily, I personally had to spend the remainder of the convention convincing not one, not two, but three “Newbie” writers that all their work and sweat and anxiety was not for nothing.

My guess is you didn’t care then, and don’t give much of a tinker’s damn about it now; hell, you probably don’t even understand why I’m upset.

Pathetic.

And while I’m at it, let’s have a few words for all of those who sat there and not only nodded their heads in agreement, but actually started offering suggestions on how to run these “pitch workshops” so as to get the most money out of them for the least amount of time and effort:

You made me momentarily ashamed to be a part of the horror community, and since that community is more or less the core of my existence, you also made me momentarily regret that I didn’t finish what I started mid-meltdown; you can only miss so many appointments in Sumarra before they stop taking your calls.

Keep in mind, folks, that The Mouth is not that uncommon a case, be they published in the Small Press or otherwise.

That beliefs like this still exist — that we who have seen publication are somehow more gifted, wiser, more deserving of respect and awe, and in general better than those fellow writers who are just starting to learn and/or ply their craft is an insult to all writers at any stage of their career, and should be ground under one’s heel into dust at every chance.

Of course those of us who’ve seen publication have picked up some knowledge that newer writers might lack; of course those of us with proven track records have been privy to some of the inner-working of the publishing business that newer writers, odds are, don’t even know exist; and you bet’cher bonanga-loo-loos that those of us who are — through the good taste, faith, and support of editors, publishers, and readers-enjoying a certain level of success revel in it, maybe even from time to time feel proud of ourselves for having continued to “make it” (whatever that means); we’d be morons to not dig it and be grateful.

But does any of that make us superior to newer writers? Does it somehow mean that we are to be coddled to and the newer writers ignored, scoffed at, and looked down upon simply because they’re new?

Do I really have to answer either of those?

I am not calling for a socialist playing field here; as Tom Monteleone has pointed out many times, the playing field isn’t level, nor should it be; there is, however, a standard for “better” with which I fully agree.

So what is it, exactly, that we should use to gauge whether or not one writer is “better” than another? The amount of their advances? How many books the have on sale in the dealers’ room at whichever convention? Whether or not they’ve ever been quoted in Locus or Writer’s Digest? Maybe the amount of lovely awards they’ve received? Name recognition? How many autographs they sign over the course of a given year? How many slack-jawed minions they can hold court over at private parties?

Huh-uh.

The only gauge of one writer’s value over another to which anyone should give credence, the sole measure of worth that ever counted or ever will count, the single most credible proof of the pudding was, is, and always shall be this:

The work.

That is the only measure of significance that should ever be taken into consideration; the rest of it is just hot air and attempts to make the writer feel/look/seem to be more important than that which they write.

We’d all do well to remember that the next someone like The Mouth decides that the aroma of their waste seduces the olfactory senses with the subtle fragrance of exotic flora.

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