10 January 2020

Politeness, a short lesson

Perusing the previous SleuthSayers blogs, I see great advice and writing tips from so many writers. I'd like to add a comment or two about writer politeness.

I was fortunate to learn from writers who mentored me the importance of a writer being polite when dealing with publishers, editors, agents, people who open manuscripts and slip them into the slush pile – anyone a writer deals with on a proefssional basis. It's hard sometimes but politeness is the best way to handle interactions, especially idiotic remarks from those same professionals who may be having a bad day.

An agent once told me if I insist on writing police procedural novels, I should do more research on police procedures, especially homicide investigations. The agent went on to say my detectives cursed too much, drank too much coffee and didn't beat up prisoners who deserved to be beat up and did not shoot enough bad guys.

"You watch TV, don't you?" the agent asked.

I did not remind the agent I was a homicide detective, although it was in my submission letter and we'd discussed it before the agent started reading my book. I just moved on. Just as I did when another agent said I needed to have my main character's new, pretty wife – murdered – to add more conflict in his life. As if trying to solve multiple murder wasn't enough conflict.

It takes will power not to talk back. I did that in grammar school and got rulers across my knuckles. Yes, I went to Catholic schools and there were nuns. That was grammar school.

My Sicilian temper rose often but it has no place in dealing with agents, publishers, editors, etc. We all cannot be Harlan Ellison, who mailed a dead gopher to a publisher.

During my short stint as an assistant editor, I opened the mail, including all submissions and witnessed a number of writers criticizing our editor for previous rejections. How many of them do you think got published in the magazine? One submitter kept concluding his new submission letter with – "I hope you read my ENTIRE submission this time."

If an agent, editor, publisher, etc. pisses you off, go ahead and chew them out in your mind. Curse them when you are alone in your office. Don't put in in writing. It is so easy today with text messaging, email and the dreaded twitter, facebook and other social networks. Don't bad mouth a publication in public, even if they deserve it, unless they are stealing. Just don't send them any more submissions and quietly tell your writer friends about them.

Vincent Anthony Francis Micheal Joseph De Noux, age 3

Some editors just don't like your writing. Move on.

LINK to Harlan Ellison mailing a dead gopher to a publisher here:

Thats all for now –


  1. All good points, O'Neil. Sometimes we have to learn that discretion is the better part of valor. I think I've finally learned that lesson, but I can tell you when I was younger I called a couple of producers liars...cause they were. And, uh, I don't think it helped my career. And that's not the worst of things I should have said. So yes, sometimes we have to be polite even when the person we're being polite to doesn't really deserve it. But we do it for ourselves.

  2. Great advice, O'Neil. I have a quick temper and it sometimes gets the best of me, but never in public and never when dealing with editors and publishers.

  3. you are so right,. It costs nothing to be polite and along with being prompt with assignments, consideration can go a long way toward literary success.

  4. Once, a long time ago, when I was a teenaged writer wanna-be, Ted White, then editor of Amazing and Fantastic, instituted a reading fee of 25 cents, which could be either a quarter or unused postage stamps. Dutifully, I included 25 cents worth of postage stamps with my next submission.

    My submission came back with a note that I had failed to include my reading fee. I wrote a scathing (or so my memory tells me) letter in reply. Maybe I should have mailed a gopher.

    I guess everything worked out in the end. Two writers who were then slush pile readers for Ted White's magazines—Grant Carrington and Thomas F. Monteleone—later became columnists for my fanzine.

  5. I consider editors and publishers like judges: they are monarchs over all they survey, and only an idiot treats them with anything but the utmost respect. Unless they're stealing from you. Then raise hell.

  6. As I recall Ellison once felt ripped off by a publisher so he stole a typewriter out of their office. Interesting fellow.

  7. Great advice, O'Neil, and it's so easy to forget it.

    Years ago, I was at a conference where Harlan Coben was the guest of honor. In an interview, the only advice I remember him offering without looking at my notes is this little gem.

    "Nobody who's an asshole survives in this business for very long."

    Nuff said...

  8. I also love the interesting and varied comments on this blog. I don't respond to rejections even if they are foolish at times. It isn't worth bothering about. Sometimes editors have helpful insights to offer even when they reject our work. However, if we don't agree, it's best to just move on. I saved the copy of The Writer that contained your article written some years ago. Lots of good advice.

  9. Glad I didn't bore you. Thanks for the comments. Jacqueline, you're talking about the October 1992 edition of THE WRITER, my lone article to appear in that fine magazine. Nice to know the advice was good enough to save.

  10. Great advice, O'Neil. It boggles my mind that writers would be rude to the very people who are in a position to either help them to get or hinder them from getting published.

    Once upon a time, I was on the Edgar Best Short Story committee and cast the deciding vote that gave the award to Harlan Ellison. At the banquet, committee chair Ed Wellen — such a lovely man, now sadly no longer with us — insisted on taking me over to Harlan and introducing me as the person responsible for him getting the award. I held out my hand ... and Harlan glared at it in disgust and turned away. At least he didn't take a swing at me, which he was sometimes known to do....

  11. My fifth year at the university at which I spent 25 years; I was a year from coming up for tenure. I was also on a committee that worked with the administration on budgetary issues. We were meeting with the Chancellor (the chief administrative person) and other administrators. The Chancellor said something, to which I replied (without stopping for thought), "Oh, you know that's not true." A silence fell upon the room.

    Fortunately for me, she left for a position elsewhere before I came up for tenure...

    And I made a point of being somewhat more circumspect...

  12. Fine post, O'Neil, and adorable kid pic. The first two responses that popped into my head came right out of my long experience as a therapist. One is a quote from from relationship expert Harville Hendrix: "What makes people believe that hurting their partners will make them behave more pleasantly?” Analogously, what makes writers think that verbally abusing an editor will make him or her publish their story? The second was regarding Harlan Ellison's behavior, especially his refusing to shake hands with our beloved Michael Bracken: I know nothing about the man, but I'd like to assess his alcohol history. I've been right about that so often over the years....

  13. Wow, okay, so many points here hit home. I was one of those people opening, reading and either passing on or to my agent or trashing slush pile submissions, and yeah, i read a whole lot of "F-you, and here's why, etc., etc." queries from people who'd been rejected. And yeah, that aint the way to get published folks!
    Makes Agents run for the hills next time they see your name on an email!


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