Impopular Culture

Impopular Culture

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Coming at the world from an unexpected angle, far too fast to stop.

To Boldly Not Go

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2016-12-05 14:50:23

Today’s song: well, I’m writing a review of a Star Trek movie, what do you expect?

So, last night I finally got around to watching the new Star Trek movie, Beyond. And it prompted me to write this review. Especially because of the writing, because the acting was quite good, the special effects were, well, special, and the science was non-existent, but that’s about par for the course, I don’t watch Star Trek for the scientific credibility. (If you do, please get out of this blog as it's likely to offend you.)

So, what’s with the writing?

It was spectacularly bad. And it was, above all, spectacularly failing to be Star Trek.

The ”spectacularly bad” is quickly recapped, and I don’t think there’s even going to be any spoilers in here. The action sequences were far too long, and failed completely to move the plot in any direction at all. The first big action sequence introduced the antagonist after about three minutes, and then went on for another fifteen minutes just to get the Enterprise crew down onto the planet, while I was yawning and wishing they’d get on with the movie.

This was a common feature of the action scenes. They went nowhere in particular, and took forever to get there. When they drag on for so long that you can figure out how they’re going to end, they’re too long. The viewer (or, when you’re writing, the reader) should never be allowed to get ahead of the plot; that way lies boredom. It’s important to keep in mind even if you’re writing an emotional drama, but when it happens in a thriller, you’re failing the one basic requirement. (Hint: it’s in the name of the genre.)

And then there was the antagonist. Oh wow, the antagonist. It started out so incredibly promising. An alien with a grudge against the Federation.

This could be Star Trek at its finest. This could be, say, an alien race that had joined the Federation, which had destroyed their ancient way of living. The Federation acting, from a certain point of view, like the Borg, assimilating everything in its way to turn in into identical copies of itself. The antagonist could parade some ancient values, have some very legitimate grievances. And Kirk and Spock, or better still Uhura, could explain why they were not the Borg (without actually mentioning them, of course, this is before Picard, after all), how individual freedom can sometimes lead to changes, but we can never judge those changes without judging the people who thought a different way of living was actually better than the old, how the filter of nostalgia will lead us to forget everything that was bad about the old ways, how freedom of choice must mean that we accept that choice, even if we disagree, and generally win the day on moral arguments alone.

Did you notice how extremely well this fits with a narrative of the modern world? How Star Trek, in the best Star Trek tradition, explains why progress is a good thing, overall, even if something is sometimes lost along the way? And yes, how this is not even a defense, but a celebration of the modern and the liberal over the ancient and the tribal? And how right-wing populists all over the world would burst just as many veins as they did when Shatner and Nimoy had black female officers and Russian officers on the bridge and celebrated peace in the future on TV while the Vietnam war and the Cold war went on in reality?

Alternatively, they could see it as a grand tragedy. I’m with the Federation, I don’t really care much how Trump or Farage see it.

But noooo. The antagonist hates the Federation because he was shipwrecked and couldn’t manage to get an SOS through because there was a nebula in the way. He hates the Federation because the radio broke. In essence, the antagonist is bad because antagonists are bad. He’s not even right in his own, distorted view of the world, he’s just gone nuts. The cheapest, laziest and most profoundly uninteresting antagonist you can think of if you sit down and deliberately try.

Don't do that. Your antagonist is every bit as important as the protagonist. The antagonist needs to be cunning, skillful, and, from his own perspective, the protagonist of a tragedy. The protagonist will need to win the day by being morally superior, and maybe smarter. If your protagonist is only able to win over incompetent idiots by being better than them at fighting, all you have is a piece of rather inferior, morally questionable violence.

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Viva Las Interwebs

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2014-04-14 17:50:09

I am a member of two writers’ groups on Facebook. One was founded as a fallout when Litopia disintegrated, and lots of people still wanted to hang out. It’s still in working order, despite having virtually no rules; one reason might be that it’s strictly by invitation, and you’re not very likely to start major fights with someone you actually know.

The other one had a Litopia moment the other day. A thread got heated, invectives started to get thrown about, and the moderators took the thread down. Moments later, there was another thread up complaining about the removal of the first one. It quickly descended into complaints about arbitrariness, despotism, and general violations of free speech.

This would happen every three weeks at Litopia.

After a few years of this, the moderators at Litopia - of which I was one - simply gave up. It’s not easy to stay positive, cheerful and impartial when people complain endlessly, which they will, simply because any group of more than three people will have different opinions about things. And that is, in brief, why the whole thing fell apart: there were not enough people left to run it.

With this experience, I have some advice for everyone who is a member of any form of online writers’ group. Or any online group at all, really.

* The Moderators are as human as you. They’ve got headaches and toothaches and bad days, too, like you. And sometimes they make mistakes. Cut them some slack. When you’re out shopping, would you actually yell at a supermarket attendant who made a mistake? (If you would, you’re simply an unpleasant person and there is probably not a whole lot I can do for you.)

* They do this for free, and you will get what you pay for. If it is a free service, you have the right to expect nothing. It is actually they who pay - by doing this instead of something they would rather be doing.

* Moderating the forum is not the most important thing in their lives. They have children, mortgages, jobs, cars that need repair and roofs that need mending, a grandmother who just fell ill and a dog that needs walking. Some days you won’t even register.

* Most importantly: What happens on the Internet, stays on the Internet. FOREVER. You’re a writer now, hence a professional; your name is your brand. And guess what? Your future business associates will google you. Your behaviour on the Web will come back to you. If you come across as a difficult person, someone who will happily lash out at people and dish out personal insults adorned with four-letter words at the mere whiff of a slight, you are henceforth labelled “Difficult to Work With” and you can expect form rejections. It might not be the worst possible reputation to have, but it’s definitely in the top three. (Unless you’re Harlan Ellison.)

This is why you should never complain when a moderator deletes your post. You should thank them.

They might have saved your book contract.

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Super Trouper

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2014-04-03 15:15:06

I hereby announce that this Saturday, I was impressed.

If that seems like a very bland announcement, you should bear in mind that I did a lot of thinking about learning and teaching when I worked as a teacher for two years, and came to the conclusion that there are very few achievements in the world which could not be repeated by most people, were they willing to invest the time, effort and sheer bloodymindedness it takes for most of us. Consequently, I will always applaud a good performance, but I will rarely be impressed, in the sense that I will believe I just saw a display of skill that defied all probability.

The last time was in November, 1993. (A Beatles tribute band called The Cavern, who did a very good Beatles impression, which I was thoroughly enjoying, but not more, up until the moment they performed Back in the USSR. I happened to know that the song was never performed live by the real Beatles. Yet, had the Fab Four ever played it in front of an audience, that was exactly what it would have sounded like. Copying existing recordings is one thing; this went far beyond that and into the realm of the truly incredible.) This will give you a sense of how easily impressed I am.

As for talent—well—if you’re born with a natural talent for anything, it means you haven’t even had to bother to practise properly. In my book, there’s nothing particularly clever about being talented; it just means you won the lottery. I’ve seen more examples of great talent leading to mediocrity (since talented people rarely develop the persistence needed to become really skilled) than great talent leading to dazzling results.

This last memorable moment also had to do with live performance of music, and it was achieved by two girls about eleven years old.

My youngest had just performed in front of an audience for the first time ever (a piano rendition of Old McDonald Had A Farm), and I was beaming with pride since he had carried it off flawlessly. Three or four acts later, up came two girls to play four-handed, which isn’t easy in the first place, what with trying to coordinate your own hands while listening to what the other person plays and adjusting accordingly so that you don’t end up finishing half a verse ahead. Their first song ended rather unexpectedly; it might have been intentional but looked more like they suddenly forgot what they were doing. Then they started on their second song (one of Beethoven’s German Dances), and... faltered after two bars.

They started over. And stopped after two notes.

And they started over. And stopped after two notes.

And the same thing happened a fourth time.

You could hear a pin drop.

Silence for about five seconds. The girls sat immobile by the piano.

They started over. And played it through perfectly.

The worst thing that can happen on a stage happened to them, and they pulled through. Sheer will force and, yes, bloodymindedness showed them through. (There’s no realistic way anything worse can happen on stage. If you drop your trousers, at least there will be laughter, and you can pretend this was exactly how you planned it. If you start babbling incoherently, you’re having a plausible case of nervous breakdown and will probably be led off and fed brandy by some kind people. If you start fornicating with the stage props—well—I did say realistic.)

The reason I’m writing this in a blog which is, ostensibly, about writing, even though I have noticeable difficulties staying on topic, is that the inestimable Lynn Price has once again posted a piece where my thoughts won’t fit snugly in the comments space.

Lots of people are scared witless by the very thought of having an audience. Personally, I’m perfectly happy with the idea, but I was still nervous enough the first time on stage that I was very fortunate to have a microphone stand to hold on to, as my knees had inexplicably turned into porridge. And when you’re a writer, you might think you sign up for a solitary lifestyle in the confinement of an ivory tower. But hey, you’re chased by publishers, agents and publicists who are eager to put you in front of an audience, and they all expect you to say interesting things.

Enough to drive anyone nuts.

So, while I have never actually been to a book signing, much less held one myself, here are my tips. I was teaching for two years, meaning I was on stage full time, in front of an audience who would much rather have been anywhere else; I played in some of the crappiest punk bands in the town where I grew up, more about which later; I was a manager at a translation agency for four years, which also entails a lot of public display and outright acting. So while there might be reason not to listen too closely, there’s at least reason to listen.

1. They Can Not See You Being Nervous.
This is extremely important to remember if you’re given to nervousness. If you start getting nervous about being nervous, the feedback loop will petrify you inside ten seconds. But guess what? Your audience can never see how nervous you are. If you don’t believe me, think back to all your job interviews, and all your performance evaluations, and remember this: the person hiring or evaluating you was very nearly as nervous as you. I’ve been there. See above. You didn’t notice. Nor will the book signing audience.

2. They Will Fulfil Their Own Prophecy.
They’re there of their own, free will. They’ve read your book with interest, and they expect you to be interesting. And amazingly, whatever you say, they’re going to find you interesting, no matter how dull you find yourself. There’s probably a name for it; I’ve been known to call it the Eric Olthwaite Effect.

3. They Will Excuse Any Eccentricity.
Face it, you’re an author. You belong to a class of people not fabled for their mental stability. Should you suddenly decide to arrive in a diving suit and answer all questions in medieval German, it’s only par for the course. More realistically, starting to mumble incoherently about a deceased uncle isn’t going to make them just up and leave on you, even if a thorough search should fail to yield any uncles at all, dead or alive. (The only problem is that if you start to e.g. use the nearest flower pot as a toilet, they will start to expect such behaviour from you in the future, which might not be altogether convenient.)

4. Even If The Worst Happens, It Will Pass.
This is where the above-mentioned punk bands come in again. I was seventeen. There was this huge gala. We were the opening act. We were so abysmally crappy that the drummer left the band fifteen minutes before curtains up, saying he couldn’t go through with it. He was replaced in a panic by the guitar player from another band who took pity on us, but had never rehearsed the songs or even heard us play. The bass guitar player could be persuaded to enter the stage only by me promising him that he could have his back to the audience at all times. I stood there, waiting for the curtain to rise, having the singing ability of the average train wreck, knowing that absolutely everyone who meant anything to me socially was going to witness this. I was dressed up as a condom.

I lived through the next twenty minutes.

Absolutely nothing about a stage can ever frighten me again.

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Thank you for, er, more music

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2012-03-19 10:25:29

So I was wrong for twice in my life. Sue me.

In fact, the author Ranelid finished last in the finals for selecting the Swedish entry to the Eurovision Song Contest. Still, the finals had some lessons for an aspiring author, oddly enough.

The winner was one Loreen, who anyone interested can listen to at some pint in, I believe, May. I wouldn’t particularly recommend it; the song was the one entry of the ten which wasn’t a very typical ’B’ side—that is, completely devoid of anything that might make it a hit, such as, having the not-so-easily-defined characteristics that make you want to listen to it more than once.

The interesting lesson was a bloke called Danny, whose reaction has something to tell anyone who is trying to learn to become a professional writer—indeed, a professional anything.

OK, so you have to feel a bit sorry for the guy. His very nondescript disco song had him finish second, for the second year running. (Yes, his entry was virtually indistinguishable from his entry in 2011.) Must be a bit of a disappointment, especially since he obviously spent a medium-sized fortune on the show (except that the songwriting was, as always, on a strict budget).

Still, running off yelling that his song was much better and that he should have won was a bit of a bad move. Especially since it was televoting, and his main rival bagged a proportion of the votes usually referred to as a landslide. He told the roughly 80% of the voters that didn’t vote for him that they were morons, and probably angered even quite a few of those who did vote for him, but also happened to like some other song.

And predictably, people thought he was being immature and a bad loser. Equally predictable, other people lashed out at this demonstration of “everyone must know their place” and claimed that in Sweden, it is impossible to declare that you want to win anything.

Both of which are completely bollocks. His reaction wasn’t so much immature as unprofessional, as the concept is understood in the entire Western world. And he passed up a wonderful opportunity to learn and improve. Judging from this reaction, he is very likely to enter next year with a song that is virtually identical to his two last entries, and finish second.

So, what should he have done?

It’s very simple, really. He can declare that he liked his own song better all he likes to; that’s no surprise to anyone. Then he should congratulate the winner, and say that obviously, more people liked that song, and then maybe regurgitate some cliché celebrating the differences of taste in the world of arts. Then he should go home, figure out exactly what the other song had that his didn’t, and write a better song; “better” in the sense of “more people voting for it”.

The parallel to writing should be obvious. But here goes, anyway.

Your reaction to rejection, in whatever form it comes, shouldn’t be, can’t be, mustn’t be, to say that they’re all wrong and stupid. Believing in your own work is a fine thing, and of course you’re asking your voters one by one, more or less, instead of showing your work to several million people all in one go, so you should persevere in case you just happened to ask the wrong one.

But when the note comes back saying someone didn’t like it, there’s no arguing. They didn’t. And there’s really only one way to fix it.


You can whine, if you like, but no amount of whining will improve your writing, just as no amount of whining will change one note of the song people didn’t like. You can self-publish, which is the equivalent of putting your song up on YouTube. (Granted, there’s a one-in-a-million chance it works, but you’re competing with Darth Vader playing bagpipes on a unicycle.) You can rant and rave in public, which will aggravate your enemies and make your friends talk behind your back. You can yell at the editor or publisher, which is as clever as yelling at the referee in football, in the secure knowledge that during a century and a half years of association football, the referee has not once changed his mind. But if you want to win the Eurovision Song Contest, the only way is to write a better song. If you want to win the FA cup, the only way is to kick the ball into the net. If you want to be published by Random House, the only way is to write a better story.

So go ahead, and write a better story.

Fail harder.

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Thank you for the Music

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2012-03-08 23:38:28

Saturday is the Big Day.

No, not in my life in particular. Fact is, I was rather looking forward to hiding in the basement, but it turns out my wife’s cousin and her family are coming over to watch the Big Event. Holing up with a Star Trek DVD would be considered decidedly anti-social.

Sweden’s contribution to the Eurovision Song Contest is going to be selected.

To my English-speaking friends, this will not appear to be a big deal. Americans don’t know what the fuss is about, and the Brits get their entry selected by some unknown people at the BBC who simply announced that their entry would be performed by Engelbert Humperdinck on an otherwise unremarkable day.

Over here, this is the climax of several months of increasingly hysterical publicity, escalating over the five weeks of preliminary qualifiers, flags flying from the petrol stations that got selected to start selling the CD only minutes after the last contestants had played their entries on live TV, millions given to charity as part of the televoting procedure, and in all, we’re approaching the media event of the year.

Presumably, they do this because they make millions out of it. The BBC should come have a look. Cameron should come have a look; if our government had reason to announce massive budget cuts, Saturday at 7.45 would be a good time because it would go completely unnoticed.

The reason I’m mentioning all this in a blog supposedly about writing is that this year’s official controversy—they have one of these regularly, and I think it’s part of the dramaturgy—has been that a bloke called Björn Ranelid entered. He is, arguably, the most famous author in Sweden. Yes, considerably better known than Stieg Larsson, and at the very least giving Astrid Lindgren a run for her money. Because none of the others ever entered the Eurovision Song Contest qualifiers, that’s why.

That’s not, in itself, controversial. He walked around a bit, performed something that was more like a public reading of a poem or something, and had a troupe of dancers and a singer do a reasonably dull disco style chorus. I’ve seen worse, and if bad rapping or mediocre songwriting was a crime, our prisons would be full of artists.

Bu the had the bad taste to get voted into the final.

It’s televoting, so there’s very little wriggle room for anyone claiming that the wrong song was selected. But the artists of Sweden, almost to a man, were incensed. It’s sort of tough on all these people, who spent tens of thousands of pounds on their dresses, and practiced their moves in front of a mirror forever, and even took singing lessons, and asked famous songwriters to come up with a tune for them, to realise that they, for want of a better word, suck.

Because Ranelid really, really stinks at singing. Of course, the size of his ego means it doesn’t bother him one bit. He’s also been on the local edition of Dancing with the Stars, and he’s utterly unable to move in any sort of rhythm. You’d be forgiven for believing that he thinks he’s got five legs.

But he’s understood the bit about ”The Author As A Rock Star”.

And given how the Swedish people usually react to things like being told that they don’t understand what they like, there’s a fair chance that you’ll see him at the ESC in Azerbaijan in May.

Remember that you saw it here first.

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WritingPosted by Pelotard 2011-12-17 23:27:26

Words written since I last posted an entry: I'll be buggered if I know, because they're still in notebooks, most of them. I did finish an entry for Etopia, but they apparently got eaten by gremlins or something, and one for Machine of Death II which didn't make it to the actual book but which they're keeping in case it comes in handy, and a story that I have high hopes for since it's the scariest I've ever written. It's so bad I get really worried about how my mind works.

Stories accepted for publication since I last posted an entry: None. Zip. Zilch. There's even been something of a lack of effort; more on that below.

Words translated since I last posted an entry: 308,665. I know this since I keep a log in my budget spreadsheet. That's right, folks, I have resigned from my daytime job, and I'm now a full time freelance translator. Thing is, I expected to get more time for writing, since I expected that there would be dips in demand. Oddly enough, no such thing has materialised. It's even as if there were a conspiracy among clients, because every time my regular customers go quiet, someone else drops me an email from out of the blue asking if I have any time to spare. The good news is, I'm making more money now than when I was employed; the bad news is, I have had no time at all for writing.

This Wednesday, I thought I'd finally get around to start submitting again. And what would you know, it didn't take Apex more than 48 hours to reject me.

I'm at it again. Failing again. No matter.

Fail Harder.

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The Business End - 4

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2011-04-04 00:33:51

Dear friends,

last time (which was admittedly a while back), I promised to write about the contract.

I honestly don't know what I was thinking. I can only assume it made sense to me at the time, although I have only my own word for it.

In the meanwhile, something interesting has happened. Not to me, but on the Internet. One writing lady had a public meltdown. You can read about it here, or you can just take my word for it: one happy amateur reviewer blogged a less-than-stellar review of a self-published book. And by less-than-stellar I mean exactly that: it was fairly positive, only had a few remarks about editing, but really the sort of review most people would call "positive". And the author had a complete and utter meltdown. In the comments on the blog.

Predictably, she is now infamous all over the Web, as an example on How Not To Do It. An author should never respond to a review with anything but a "Thank you", let alone vitriol, and the pinnacles of erudite repartee she scaled have now earned her scores of one-star reviews on Amazon and 19,100 Google hits on her name. Few of them mention her in a positive light.

However, I wouldn't be me if I were only to write about what she did wrong. Nor would I find the question "How do you excercise proper self-control" particularly engaging.

I'm going to talk, instead, about Calvin's Question:

"Here's another hypothetical question: What if I already did?"

Today's lesson is

Damage Containment.

This is probably the spot where someone, presumably someone who knows me well, protests that I have no experience at all of media, Internet meltdowns, or PR in general.

Technically, this is true. But I do have rather extensive experience in "managing irate customers". Much more experience than I strictly speaking deserve; my clients get upset over translations that I usually had very little to do with in a productive capacity, considering that I normally don't even speak the target language. As an author, your clients are the readers. My knowledge is absolutely applicable to a situation like this.

Ms. Howett has, indeed, made a spectacle of herself in public. Let's say your self-control slipped similarly. What do you do? Give up your career altogether?

No. You take steps to control the situation. In an office, your first reaction should be to let your manager handle the situation (and recommend your client to push the problem one level up, too): firstly, they're paid to handle messes, secondly, they don't have vested interests in the outcome but can discuss the issue in a more detached way. As an author, you're self-employed, and you probably don't have that sort of luxury, although your agent and/or editor should be more than willing to help prevent the fallout worsening.

1. Take the blame.

It doesn't matter if it was really your fault. I can count on one hand the number of times I have had to apologise to a customer for something I messed up personally (and when I did, it was usually for some reason which was entirely reasonable to me, like "I could only handle one issue and the other client is in the habit of paying on time"). In a business situation, you must realise that the person on the other end is probably being shouted at big time, and the simple admission that you're an idiot who drove into a brick wall for no apparent reason will tend to defuse the situation. In the author situation, you'll have to realise that it's no longer about being right or wrong. It's about appearances. You already appear to be wrong. Accepting this will make you look less of a fool. Yes, it's possibly unfair; get over it. You're a pro, remember?

2. Apologise.

Personally and in public. I hear you whine "But I was right!", but this is immaterial. If you are, and still apologise for your behaviour, it'll only make you look better. And remember, there are 19,100 people out there who think you aren't. Optionally, you can invent a reason for your behaviour: you were on medication at the time (or not, as the situation warrants), the cat died, you were told your distant uncle has a serious illness, it was raining for the third day running and you're allergic to water, anything. Offer it as an explanation, not an excuse. This is important: making excuses is bad, and you will come across as trying to justify yourself. You're apologising precisely in order to admit that your behaviour was unacceptable, for whatever reason.

3. Offer a solution.

This one is contingent on the exact nature of the mess. In the case of a bad review, you should simply say that you take the comments onboard and hope to write something better next time. If you've delivered a lousy translation a week after the deadline, you'll have to promise delivery of a good translation on a specified date. If you're a politician and delivered a recession, your situation is slightly more troublesome, but an economic recovery would of course top the list.

4. Deliver.

Ah, this is when it becomes tricky. Ms. Howett has the easy task: she simply has to hire a good copyeditor for her next effort. I normally have to try to find someone else who is proficient in a language that looks, to me, like a drunk ant walked across the page and can provide evidence that he or she has once delivered on time, said evidence preferably not being in said ant-walk language; this can be tricky if, as is sometimes the case, the language is only spoken by some 1,000 people in the world, most of whom are nomads. If you're (say) a politician, try to make a few wise and popular decisions, or failing that, at least a decision which is somewhat in line with what you said you'd decide before the election. It all depends on your situaiton.

5. Don't expect miracles.

This isn't going to work. At least, it's not going to work if your expectations are that everyone will see that you're right and start to love you. What you can realistically hope to achieve is that most of the key players - those who saw your meltdown first-hand, your client, or the people who voted for your party in your consituency - will stop taking every opportunity to tell anyone who wants to listen what a complete arsehole you are. Your reputation isn't going to be restored. But you are allowed to hope that it will stop deteriorating.

And as an author, you have one resort that translation agencies and politicians lack: a pen name.

Or in my case, my real name.

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The Business End - 3

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2011-01-16 23:49:05

Don’t you trust me?

If you ever hear a business partner—I’m talking about an agent or an editor here—saying this phrase, it means you’re in the hands of a scammer. Strong words, but that’s a fact.

Paradoxically, the reason is that business is all about trust. That’s why you shouldn’t have to trust anyone, because there are mechanisms built in all over the business world to see to it that you don’t have to.

First and foremost of these are The Contract.

That’s a piece of paper you both sign to have a copy of what you’ve agreed upon. And no serious businesspeople have anything against signing any number of such papers. When I finally sold that translation agency I’ve been going on about, I signed eleven copies of the contract. Initials on every page.

It was seven hundred pages.

Actually, in this case, neither me nor my partners had read it all; nor had the other party—at least, I strongly suspect so. We all paid people to read it for us and tell us that it was OK to sign.

When an agent or a publisher offers you a contract, you’re probably not going to be so lucky. (Chances are, you’re being paid less than you’d have to fork out for someone to read it for you.) You will have to read it, and be sure that you understand every single word.

Why is this so? Noone ever reads the contracts they sign when they rent a car, or a DVD, or a cottage. Why is this different?

Well, see lesson 1. You’re a businessperson now. In the examples above, you’re a consumer, and there are laws to protect you. If any clause is unreasonable, there are laws to render it invalid. As a business, you are required to have read and understood everything you sign, and there are no laws protecting you. An agreement between two companies can be as unreasonable as it likes.

But when it’s signed, it’s signed. The contents can’t be changed except by mutual agreement. If a clause is violated, court cases ensue.

You see how this sort of eliminates trust? You have the agreement. You don’t have to trust each other. If there’s ever a disagreement, you simply grab the paper and see what it says. This is why it’s vital to sign the paper while you’re still in agreement: when you’ve fallen out, it’s too late. This, in its turn, is why no legitimate business ever shies away from signing the contract. You are in agreement about everything it contains; there’s no reason not to sign it.

This is the first business principle my Dad taught me: always get it on paper. (Then he pulled out a pen and a wad of papers, including a repayment schedule, detailing the money he’d just lent me. Not that we’ve ever fallen out, but with the paper signed, there wouldn’t even be any risk.)

But hey, the world is full of scammers and con artists, surely?

Yes, and then again, no. Most people you meet in business aren’t out to rip you off. This is another important principle: A good business deal has two winners. Your agent wants you to be happy with the deal you’ve signed. (The alternative is that you go to another agent the moment you start making money. Not good business.) They want to gain something from the deal, absolutely. That’s perfectly legitimate. But they also recognise that it’s legitimate for you to want a good deal.

So how do you tell if it’s really legit or if it’s one of the scammers?

You learn to see the signs. (Refusing to sign contracts is an obvious one. Insisting you don’t read the small print is another.) Publishing is especially fraught with con artists, since it’s a business full of rather naïve beginners. But there are also people out to help you. Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors are two good web sites to get you started. Litopia and The Other Place are forums where you can ask around. And you should never sign important contracts without having done your homework. Google the other part. They’ve done the same for you. If they’re not above board, there’ll be a dozen Web pages telling you so. There are organisations (in the UK, there’s the Society of Authors) who will have a quick look at the contract you’re offered and tell you whether the terms re reasonable. Get a credit report—yes, they cost money, but a bad deal costs a lot more. See if they have clients who praise them. Always remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it invariably is. And when you’ve done your homework, you don’t have to trust them, because you’ve already found out whether they’re trustworthy.

There’s a balance, of course. When offered a contract, don’t sign it without reading, but don’t start to question every single word of it, either. It’s the ”easy to do business with” bit from Lesson 2. You should default to trust, just keep your eyes open in case there’s a reason not to. (And don’t worry if they notice. It’s legitimate to be alert, it’s only tiresome if you’re overdoing it.)

You should also, when you sit down to negotiate a deal, have a clear idea of what you want, of what you can accept, and exactly where the point is when you turn the deal down, gather your MS pages, and walk away after politely shaking their hands. Because you should always be willing to turn the contract down, if it contains something you absolutely can’t live with. (For me selling translations, it’s when they expect it to be done so quickly that there’s no possibility of doing a quality job, or to buy it at a price so low I can’t put bread on the table. Your mileage may vary. In a writing situation, it might be when they want to add pornographic scenes without consulting you.)

And now, you’re starting to behave like a pro. Turning a reasonable offer down is something amateurs never get around to.

More on good deals in the next lesson...

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