Defending the gatekeepers or how I refuse to back down from my goals

I mean, what better way to kick off 2017 than with some beef?

A month ago, I came across an article that kinda ticked me off enough for me to write a response. I thought about not linking it but in the end I realized it would be dishonest to go after someone’s post in a passive-aggressive manner. That’s never been my style.

I also confess that I do not feel comfortable going after a fellow POC writer, but honestly, if we can’t face criticism, then we’re not going to be able to grow as writers.

The piece is here:

Now, the author doesn’t immediately make it clear that she’s referring to journalism, but I think it’s something that goes beyond that. The first red flag for me were the words:

“I’ve never held an official writing position, never been in the room for editorial meetings, never stepped into a publication’s headquarters to report for duty. But I’ve been freelancing for over a year. … I’ve seen how the industry-at-large, with the exception of a few (often minority-led) publications, tailors itself to trends and power over integrity.”

She adds, referring to the open letter she quoted: “I’ve found that as Kang asserted, there’s no security in it for writers like us unless we “build our own shit”

Let’s break that down.

The first part kind of made me want to ignore everything else that was said. How can you get on a soapbox like the one you’re going to get on without having never done any of the legwork?

In full disclosure: I was only a journalist for three and a half years and that was during college.

Some of you think, “well, why are YOU on a soapbox if your experience was in a college newspaper?”

My answer is this: The administration had no say in what we published. We were funded by our own ads. The staff moderator was a veteran of the Chicago Sun-Times and ran that ship with the same mentality of a big time newspaper: if you're early you're on time; if you're on time, you're late; if you're late, you're fired. We routinely competed with the city’s main daily for headlines and routinely produced better material than they did. Three and a half years, working my way up from a beat reporter (where I wrote two very minor exposés I'm still proud of)  to eventually part of the copy-editor pool and then keeping those duties as I became the sports editor, where not only was I in charge of laying out my page but I was also responsible for getting the media that would appear there, coordinate with photographers and videographers, make assignments, and at times be my own crew, lugging around videocameras and Nikon SLRs and their tripods.  Assignment meetings at the ass-crack of dawn, coming home at 2-3 a.m., several days where I didn’t eat anything at all until my stomach reminded me to do it, a social life limited to the small handful of friends I had on the staff. It was my life. I lived and breathed my little bits of journalism. 

I have no regrets for that, and no regrets for the solo work I’ve done through Examiner or through other freelancing ventures like Hype Houston. That’s why I’ll get a bit of an attitude when someone wants to talk shit about the quote unquote industry and hasn’t done even a tiny bit of the legwork.

If the author of the piece had, she’d realize that this idea that power largely replaces integrity as a rule rather than exception. It’s why I decided against becoming a full-time journalist (the other main reason was that the only place that was hiring was a newspaper in Armpit, Texas offering me peanuts). This is not news. Newspapers get funded by ads. Write a piece not favorable to one of your advertisers and see how long you stick around.

“When I started writing professionally, I had no idea how any of this worked. I had made it through only one year of college before dropping out in a depressive state, and then floated through life like a dandelion seed until the years planted me in a position to try my hand at it. My first piece went viral, and I got a taste of both success and exploitation. Multiple major publications picked my work up, but I Was offered no compensation, and certainly no opportunities. Essay after essay, the same thing happened, while I watch white writers get book deals for similar notoriety.”

Writing for exposure is a bad thing.

Also going viral does NOT mean you get money.

You don’t have to have a college degree to figure out that you can’t roll up to Whataburger and pay them in exposure bucks. And a lot of publications follow this predatory model of “oh, sure, write something that’ll get us money from clicks but will get you nothing” that’s why I cut ties with Examiner, that’s why I’d never let a piece go to HuffPo. If I’m writing for you, you’re paying me, full stop.

I am curious, though, which white writers get book deals for similar notoriety? This argument would definitely been strengthened if she had given us names. White writer writes angry piece and gets book deal. That doesn’t ring a bell.

But at the same time, even if she did, the question is:

AND?

EL James writes Twilight fanfiction and she’s made more money in the time it took to write this sentence as I have this entire year. Her success does not affect me in any way.

“But I began to feel my first inkling of faith in myself, anyway. I began to feel that I was good enough to follow a trajectory that might grant me a full-time or sustainable position writing or editing somewhere. I thought I could work my way to a seat at the proverbial table.”

You know, if there was one benefit of being a journalist in college, is that it taught me real quick the realities of the field. I never expected a full-time/sustainable position writing or editing somewhere.  I’m reading this paragraph as: “Writing well = $$$$$$$$$$” when it never is like that. Why? Because the reality is that we all worship at the altar of the almighty dollar, and a company is going to think profit-first. Scenario: You run a magazine. You have two options:

  1. Pay one writer $50,000 + benefits to be a full-time writer.
  2. Pay four freelancers (who are just as good as Option 1 guy) $12,500 apiece, no benefits, for them to write part-time in different shifts. You’re spending the same amount of money, but now instead of one guy, you have four writers.

Tell me you wouldn’t take Option 2.

“So I tried the typical freelancing route, despite being an atypical freelancer. I tried pitching publications that increased in prestige (and pay) in order to acquire enough bylines to back me. But I couldn’t eat bylines, and the ones I managed to collect didn’t cover the bills. Still I kept at it. And then time passed. And more time. And more time. Each pitching attempt meant sometimes two weeks of waiting for acceptance or rejection, and then a few days of writing, and then anywhere from 30-90 days waiting for a check (usually under $100) when my bills were already past due.”

So…I’m hoping that the author had a backup job or a source of support because to just say “okay I’ll be a writer!” and start writing isn't the best course to financial stability. Writing with that kind of mentality is, at best, going to give you drinking money. 

“It became clear that following the path laid out for freelance writers required certain resources. Resources that I don’t have. It requires deep wells of time and energy, connections to expedite pitching, fall-back money for when the checks are late or infrequent, and more. What I have is a baby who only allows me to write when he’s asleep, an occasionally debilitating depression that renders me unproductive, and an equally exhausted support network who can’t afford to bail me out while I bet on myself. But I kept betting on myself, hoping someone would throw me a big break before my resolve broke.”

I’m going to throw in another disclaimer because I don’t want it to seem as I’m attacking a mother who has depression. I know what mental illness is like. I understand and my heart does go out to her. I think her baby is going to grow up with a mom who’s big into social justice and will provide him or her that fire.

But you can't gamble like that. Not when you have mouths to feed, not when you have to take care of yourself. I don't have children of the non-furry kind, but I do pay a mortgage. I can't say, nah, I'll quit my job (where I work 40 hours a week and have benefits and a 401k) to write because 1) that's just not reasonable by any stretch of the imagination 2) My fiancée would switch the locks on me.

Plus. I really don't put stock in the starving artist myth. Seriously, I don't.

I don't think it's a smart move to gamble on a very unsteady job market with a lot on the line. It's like going into Oil and Gas right now. Sure, you're making steady money, and then someone gets cute with the oil in the Middle East and wham! 250,000 people lose their jobs. Although from a risk management standpoint, gambling with a job in O&G is still better than gambling with self-publishing your essays.

When I gamble, I never bet with my financial stability. I bet either drinking money or something embarrassing, like cooking steak for a friend (thanks, Zeke Elliott) or shaving off my hair (thanks for nothing, Cam Newton)

My alma mater’s football team is terrible. I'm sorry, #MINERFOOTBALL, we are. We're still in the C-USA. Our biggest victories this season came against UNT and two teams that weren't even playing Division I football 6 years ago. Mathematically, there is a chance for UTEP to play in the national championship game. For that to happen, UTEP would have to run the table like the University of Houston did in 2011 before they shit the bed against Southern Miss, and five or six other teams must have two losses. 

Mathematically, it's possible.

I'm still not betting on it.

(But if it happens, I'll do something embarrassing and I'll leave this comment here to come back to it if it does happens...I mean the Cubs won, right?)

Here’s the thing: I write on the side. It’s my unpaid side hustle. I would love to quit my job and have Joss Whedon to come across one of my short stories and decide to option it for $5,000 and invite me over to work for him in California. That’s a fantasy, and because it’s a fantasy, I have to operate my life as if it won’t materialize.

That means: Working outside the field. That means: Making sure I have something to finance my writing habit. 

The idea is achieving escape velocity: When your safe withdrawal rate exceeds your expenses.

Another lesson on economics (RIP Mr. Johnson) if you provide a product that people want, they will throw money at you. Money can then be exchanged for goods and services.

Essays don't sell.

(Unless you're writing essays for rich kids in high school and college)

I've discussed it in past posts. Rather than going into a specialized English degree, I decided to get a mass communications major because it was much more general and allow me to learn a lot from a lot of different things instead of adding on to the risk of specialization. When I interviewed for my first big-boy job, I was able to sell my coursework and my work at the newspaper for an analyst position. 

Author  continues:

“Beyond the stifling limitations inhibiting me from producing as much as more privileged peers.”

She’s mentioned depression and a child. I wonder how she’ll feel about one of my friends, a WOC who’s lost chunks of her fingers to a chronic disease, and still has 1) a book deal 2) a fantastic reputation as a writer and performer and she keeps on putting stuff out there. I’d bet a meal at Whataburger that she would trade places with the author in a split-second.

“I found that the work I was producing was being watered down by the editing processes of the publications I was pitching. I found that the men were editing my pieces on misogyny and sexism. I found that pieces on Blackness were being edited by white people. I found that pieces where my voice were being edited by white people. I found that pieces where my voice was strongest were being softened for palatability. I rapidly grew frustrated and dissatisfied.”

Alright so the author is putting herself in a lose-lose situation here. Either: Nothing gets published OR watered-down product gets published.

I don’t understand why that has to be the scenario. Why not turn it into a win-win? Okay, pitch a piece, submit it.

Editor: you know what, I don’t think this belongs here
Writer: oh hey, thank you for the feedback, but, can I ask why?
Editor: well, I think it comes off as angry
Writer: But I am angry. I don’t think it’s respectful to me that that’s not being considered.
Editor: You know what, you’re right, actually, let’s fix that and let’s add that bit about disrespect.

AND SCENE

I'll admit to being spoiled because the editors I've had have been primarily Latinas. The one that wasn't (although she was from THE VALLEY) was the one that edited my more "race-conscious" stories and you know what? She left them pretty much as they were, but when she made edits, she was sure to let me know why and when.

Re-re-rewind back to my college copy-editing days. When my stories went through the battery of copy-editors, I did feel a little defensive about my work. I mean, who wouldn't? But rather than not have them copy-edited, I played a game with my fellow editors I'd pay them $0.25 per mistake caught. If it was a missed comma, sure, no biggie. Here’s your quarter.  But if it was a word or phrase being used, I’d ask my peer why. They’d come up with a reason, and I’d either agree with the reason or not, but as long as there was an argument to be made, I felt my writing got stronger.

“If I was sacrificing sleep to write heartfelt work that generated serious traffic, if I was being abused by the audiences that exposure from big pubs brings, if I was grappling with editors to maintain the integrity of my own voice – where the hell was my stability? Where was consistency I could count on, the benefits of all my hard labor? Where was my half of the rent money? Missing.”

One thing – no one deserves the abuse that a lot of writers get online. Especially women.

But the other stuff?

You’re not entitled to stability. It’s not because you’re a girl or black or Latina or white or liberal or conservative. No one is going to give us that just because we write. The most lucrative writing jobs go for the people that have lucked out in their internships in college or were at the right place, right time. The others go to the technical writers, who arguably write a lot of boring stuff but you tell someone their job is boring when they’re bringing home around $70,000 a year.

“I self publish because what I want most from writing is to be able say what needs to be said as authentically as I can say it, and to reliably provide for my family while doing so. I’ve learned that — as a broke Black woman — the odds of me being able to count on the industry to allow me those things simultaneously are slim. So I dedicate myself to building my own platform, and count on the fact that others value what I offer as much as I value providing quality content. I bank on faith that those who appreciate my work will invest in it so that I can afford to create it.”

Here is my question to the author: What if it doesn’t?

The reason I want to go through the traditional publishing is because in my mind, even if I was wildly successful as an indie author, I wouldn’t be able to shake the what ifs of what could have been if I had gone traditional.

Let me repeat: This is my path. I advocate it for me. If you prefer to self-publish because fuck Simon and Schuster or if you want to go traditional because Simon and Schuster are your homeboys, I am going to cheer you on.

(Unless you're a New York Giants fan)

So I wonder if the author thinks about that, or if she’s thought about what is going to happen if/when those people she’s banking on again don’t contribute enough to support her. Who will she blame, then?

But this line, man: “I bank on faith that those who appreciate my work will invest in it so I can afford to create it.”

No one goes into this art to make a buck. Maybe the technical writers and grant writers and those in PR do, but we're talking about creative writing. It's fantastic when we’re able to make it a full-time ordeal. But money is not why we do it. What I'm inferring from this statement is: “I can’t create it if I’m not being paid for it.”

I don’t get paid, either. The most amount of money I’ve gotten paid as a result of my writing has been $50 and that’s for conducting a workshop on writing flash fiction.

I still write.

I write when I don't get paid.

I write on weekends. I write when I'm tired. I write when I'm sick. I write when I'm on my lunch break. I write when I'm drinking with friends. It is not a conditional thing for me. I write unconditionally.

It should go without saying that just because I write for the sake of writing doesn’t mean I don’t want to get paid. I still do want to get paid. So using “c’mon bro you write because you love writing” as an excuse to get me to write for you, you’re doing it wrong. You know what else I love? Watching Arrow on TV and playing Dragon Age: Inquisition. I don’t get paid for that.

(I mean, I’m sure there’s a way to monetize my video-game playing through Twitch…but I don’t have the brain for that and videogame time is pretty much alone time for me)

*coughs*

Anyway.

“I reject the notion that appealing to gatekeepers is the only way through the gate. Gatekeepers are fickle and fallible. Their keys are ever-evolving. Gatekeepers don’t represent me without stipulations that I can’t stand by. I can’t count on being let in as I am. What I can count on, is that the audience that I’ve garnered here is here for my unfiltered abilities. What I hope to one day count on is that the model I’ve chosen can be enough to sustain itself.”

what

oh come on

You know why it’s worse to go it alone?

You get attached to something you create and you become blind because 1) you’re too biased 2) you’ve seen the same passages over and over again that you don’t catch some of the most obvious mistakes

I remember last year I was having some beta readers go over one of my short stories. She emails me a few hours later and tells me she was kind of wondering why I had two main characters. I was confused, and then she sent me back the revisions and I felt super embarrassed because I hadn’t caught that when I switched the main character’s name, I didn’t do it in every instance of the story. Mind you, I had read this story OVER and OVER again and even sent it to a few lit mags, and I was still missing stuff. 

She’s not mentioning hiring editors. She’s not mentioning hiring betas. She’s just railing against gatekeepers and how fallible they are.

NO ONE'S ARGUING THEY'RE INFALLIBLE.

You know how I know that? They’re humans.

Take a look at this list of authors:  JK Rowling, Louis L’Amour, Jack Canfield/Mark Victor Hansen, Margaret Mitchell, Thor Heyerdahl, Stephenie Meyer, Madeleine L’Engle, Audrey Niffenegger, Kathryn Stockett, Yann Martel, Catherine O’Flynn, Frank Herbert, Nicholas Sparks, James Patterson, John Grisham, Alex Haley, E.E. Cummings, Robert M. Pirsig, Jack London.

1602 agents combined turned them down.

Bet you several of them feel like total ass, but at the same time a lot of them made the best decision they could make on their judgment. We only get to call them dumb because we have the benefit of hindsight. Everyone's an expert with hindsight.

I'm one of the #NOERAPENAL guys from last World Cup when Arjen Roben flopped so hard that he went back in time and established flop as a verb. But Mexico at that point had decided their best chances were to park the bus against a notorious flopper and created a scenario where #TheFlop could happen. (The argument in favor of that is that if El Tri hadn't parked the bus against the Dutch National Flopping Team, they would have gotten worn down eventually)

The Seahawks a few Super Bowls ago were one yard away from potentially winning their second Super Bowl in a row, but Pete Carroll decided to pass the ball on 2nd-and-1 instead of hand it off to the best running back in the NFL at the time. A terrible decision, sure, because it didn't work. But Pete Carroll had 1 timeout and very little time. Bill Belichick, the evil genius, was on the other side. Everyone in the world was expecting Pete Carroll to run the ball, if it failed, time out, line up again, run again, and if it failed, go to pass. Calling a pass play on 2nd and 1 with a mobile QB  who didn't have a whole lot of interceptions that year was the only zany thing that made sense (no pass had been intercepted from that close to the goal line that year). Then Malcolm Butler intercepts a ball intended for Ricardo Lockette (who had 3 inches and 20 pounds on Butler) and seals the deal for the Pats. If he's one half-step slower, Carroll is a genius. 

I love going down wormholes of what ifs (a fun one involves my terrible performance as a law student being instrumental for my writing career) and getting on agents' case for making "mistakes" is fruitless.

In short: If my aunt had a dick, she'd be my uncle.

Here is why I like the Gatekeepers: Your success is their success. They have a vested interest in your getting better. 

They also sort through slush piles and deal with a lot of bullshit that a lot of people don't really get. And I'm talking every type of gatekeeper, from the biggest agents in the biggest New York firms to the smallest editor in the smallest lit mags.

During my time with Bartleby Snopes, I was one of those Gatekeepers. We received some FANTASTIC stories. But we also received a lot of, well, not-so-fantastic stories. And you know what? We gave them the same respect we gave the other stories. We would return pieces with honest feedback for the author. If you don’t think that’s valuable, I really don’t know what to say. Gatekeepers in the publishing industry have the same kind of function. I don’t take rejection from them as “oh how DARE THEY reject me” I take it as “well, I need to edit some things, and if it’s perfect, well, then it just wasn’t in my cards and I’m going to try someone else” boom.

Back to the author.

“I regularly receive comments or emails regarding my use of audience-funded self publishing. The commenters insist that if my work was good enough, I’d be working in major publications and not “panhandling.” Beyond pointing out that asking to be compensated for providing a service isn’t begging — I say to them that this route is my resistance against an industry that isn’t built for writers like me. I found a way that suits the life I lead as a marginalized person lacking time, energy, money, and institutional credentials. I created a space that allows me to create to the best of my ability.”

No, ma’am, I think you ran away.

As marginalized persons, we have a responsibility to create those spaces WITHIN the communities that are too white. Here’s the thing. I hated literary fiction because when I was in high school, because all I was exposed to was the same stuffy Anglo-American authors that wrote boring fiction. It didn’t speak to me. I sank my teeth into genre fiction instead because hey, these writers talking about the real world aren’t writing about things that I can relate to so instead I’m going to focus on swords and sorcery and PEW PEW PEW PEW.

Fast forward several years into a graduate program that exposed me to Sandra Cisneros, Dagoberto Gilb, Daniel Chacón, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Julio Cortazar, Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Suarez. Reading those authors, I felt something in me that I hadn’t experienced before: A connection to literary fiction. I’ve made it my mission to get through the gate keepers, kick the door in, and infiltrate those majority-white spaces. “Infiltrate, not segregate” as a friend would say.

I have 0 issue with self-publishing. I think it works for a lot of people, I think the indie authors that rise through the self-published slush piles are supremely talented. But it’s not for me. I want to leave as much of an impact I can on the Latino community in the United States and abroad. To do that, I have to equip myself with the biggest stick I could find, and the gatekeepers have it.

If the industry isn't built for "writers like her" you work at it. Lord knows I've written about the lack of diversity in YA fiction. The lack of diversity in the lit world. I've said multiple times that we lack representation across all forms of media. But it's not going to change by hiding. It's going to change by getting inside those spaces.

“And, no, I’m not at stability yet, but I know I’m bringing myself closer. Sometimes my pieces make me more than any publication would’ve offered. My audience receives my words from me exactly as I intended.”

Is that necessarily a good thing?

If that’s the case, why not just go through a POD service and hand out your pamphlets? There’s your audience. There’s your vanity press. Have at it.

So going back to the talented indie authors out there. The best of them will have batteries of editors combing through their work. A good example would be Andy Weir, who would open the chapters in The Martian to criticism he incorporated in the final book. That’s a system I can get behind and mad respect to the authors who go through that.

But choosing to say, nah, I’m going to go straight to readers? Pretty vain, if you ask me.

I’m writing this in my blog and I recognize there’s a whole host of errors that may get past me when I edit these posts. But this blog isn’t going to be nominated for writer awards anytime soon. I’ll sometimes write entries where I’m supremely exhausted and it’ll show. And here’s the thing about this blog: Mistakes will happen. This is just a tiny little soapbox I stand on twice a week.

When it comes to the stuff I send out? You bet your ass I’m editing and re-editing and getting feedback and combing through multiple times. What I send out to editors and agents is my best and nothing but.

“And no one has the power to rip my platform from me and hand it to someone more befitting of whatever’s on trend. In an industry where few who look like me hold power, I’ve taken my power back. Self-publishing empowers me to build my own sustenance.”

But does it?

Yeah, it’s an industry where few who look like us hold power.

I’ve used my AMAZING map-making skills to explain this point:

 

If your ambitions are set to: “make my little tiny market by myself” sure. I’m happy for you, but I have to question why someone who penned this piece:

https://thsppl.com/why-i-m-absolutely-an-angry-black-woman-2cf74c95828#.6q9ttn7qg

wants to limit her potential audience.

Look, I don't want this post to be taken as a knock against self-publishing. Over the past year I've gotten to read and learn from many authors who choose this path. I haven't read a whole bunch of their work but at the same time I haven't read a whole bunch of books, either (I notched only 25 this year, sadly). I think if this is a path you want to follow and have done the research, please do it. Let me know how it goes. Give me recs.

But if you do, don't belittle those who don't want to follow the "traditional" path. Don't write treatises about how eeevul the industry is if you're not going to take steps to fix it.