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October 2019
 
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Thoughts on Writing

#33: Not Making People Hit You

by Seanan McGuire


I tend to enjoy the process of not being hit, but it might help to have a little context to go with that summation:

Learn to be gracious to everyone who helps you. Thank your proofers. Thank your editors. Thank your agent. Thank your readers. They're doing you a favor. You're also doing them a favor—you're letting them play with your kids—so don't be servile, but do be gracious.

It may seem a little odd to you that I feel the need to say this, but honestly, after watching my own behavior under pressure, and the behavior of others, I feel that it's an important statement to make. Not just for writers, either. No matter who you are or what you do, you need to be gracious, and appreciative of the things that people do for you when you don't need them to. Our culture tells us it's better to give than to receive. How do you react to the good things without seeming entitled, arrogant, or just plain snotty? Let's discuss graciousness, what it means, and how we all sometimes fall a little short. Ready? Good. Let's begin.

The Magic Words Are Still Magic.

Most of us were told as children that "please" and "thank you" were the magic words. These are words that work, in some ways, like actual incantations; you use them, and things happen. "Please" gets you the stuff that you want. "Thank you" closes and completes the spell, making it more likely that you'll be able to cast it again. The more sincerely you cast this spell, the better it works. If you sound sullen and resentful when you spit out your "thank you," you're going to find that the spell loses its power. These are all lessons we learned when we were in the single-digits, and they're lessons that hold true today.

When you want something, say "please." When someone gives you something, say "thank you." Even if you don't like what they just gave you, say "thank you." Unless they gave you a punch in the face followed by a radioactive scorpion shoved down the front of your trousers, say "thank you." Does it seem like I want you to say "thank you"? That's because I do.

You're welcome.

("You're welcome" is also an essential part of the spell, although it requires someone else to initiate casting. When someone thanks you, say "you're welcome." Don't say "it was nothing," or "oh, I would have done it anyway," because that is belittling their gratitude. Please feeds thank you feeds you're welcome.)

Being Gracious Under Pressure.

All right, let's be serious for a moment: I spend a lot of time stressed out of my mind. I believe in taking on tasks, duties, hobbies, and commitments until I feel the floorboards start to creak, and even then, I'm likely to pick up one or two more things before I cry "hold enough." Why does this matter? Because it means that if I didn't learn how to be gracious even when all I wanted to do was scream, I would quickly run out of people to talk to.

No one is perfect. All of us will have our flares of temper, our little moments of kicking-and-screaming prima donna "I'll show them! I'LL SHOW THEM ALL!"-levels of crazy. When that happens—and it will happen, no matter how much you hope it won't—remember that you owe people apologies for the things you do while you're crazy. Explain, but don't make excuses. Say "I'm sorry I upset you while I was insane," not "I was crazy, so I'm not at fault." No one signed up to be the official kicking board here. Not your friends, not your family, and certainly not your editor or your agent. If you lose your temper, say you're sorry.

There will be times when all you want to do is gnaw off your own leg and run, but business needs will require you to keep smiling, being social, and looking like you're having a good time. Remember that no one is forcing you to do these things out of the desire to cause you pain; a certain amount of public civility comes with the territory (unless you're Harlan Ellison). Try not to blame the folks who just want to say hello and discuss your latest story. They don't know that you're fighting the urge to crawl into a hole and hide. They just want to be friendly. So nod, and smile, and endure.

Know Your Limits.

At the same time, know when you're about to run out of cope, and find a way to make a polite exit before that happens. It helps if you can bring a friend or two as designated "handlers" for the evening. Trust them to get you out when you signal, and you may find that this renders you capable of standing proud for longer.

Be Thankful.

Say "thank you" to your proofers. Without them, you'd probably suck more. I know I would.

Say "thank you" to your agent. Without your agent, you'd have a much harder time dealing with the publishing world.

Say "thank you" to your editors. Believe me, they make a huge difference.

Say "thank you" to your readers. Without them, what's the point?

Sometimes, being thankful to the people who put up with the bulk of your crazy—the proofers, agents, and editors of the world—will make it appropriate to give small tokens of your esteem. I try to set up a "proofer gift" for every book or series I sell, to acknowledge all the hard work and dedication that people put into my work. Money can't buy love, and it won't apologize for an excess of bad behavior, but it's a nice gesture, and a lot of people will really appreciate it.

(No, you don't have to buy gifts for all your readers. Not even Stephen King has that much money. But that's what public thanks and attending events and conventions are for. People like to hear "thank you" in person, too.)

In Conclusion...

Be gracious, be thankful, and remember, manners can get you a lot further in this world than almost anything else. Even chainsaws.

Thank you, and goodnight.
© 2011 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and has published five novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy.

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