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That Awkward Moment When…

erikamitchell [1]Today’s guest is Erika Mitchell [2], author of Blood Money [3] and Bai Tide [4], the first novel of a new series about CIA case officer Bai Hsu (Champagne Books, 2015). Erika cut her espionage teeth on James Bond marathons with her father at a formative age and has never looked back. She lives in the Seattle, WA area with her husband and their two tiny spies-in-training and welcomes new online friends at her blog [5], on Twitter [6], or on Facebook [7].

Of today’s post, Erika says:

One of the things that meant the most to me when I was just starting out as a writer was how helpful the more successful authors were to me. If, from my tiny corner of the Internet, I can promulgate that attitude of kindness, I will be well pleased.That being said, lines do occasionally need to be drawn. Equipping fellow authors with ideas for addressing these situations when they strike is as important to me as spreading the love. It’s vital that authors be able to mean what they say, and it should be understood that sometimes a kind “No” is an invitation to keep working on something that might not be finished yet.

That Awkward Moment When…

I’m going to paint you a picture. You are at a writer’s conference (let’s make it in Hawaii because I’m nice to you). You’re standing on a lanai with a dozen other writers, a sweating hurricane glass full of sunset-colored Mai Tai in one hand, a business card in the other. The person who just handed their business card to you is standing about a foot away, jabbering about their novel because you asked, “What’s your book about?” Let’s go wild here and say the other person’s novel is about a zombie love affair set in apocalyptic Boston. And there are lasers in it for some reason. Oh! And cat vampires!

[pullquote]The awkward moment comes in a variety of flavors, but many of them share a common theme: Someone wants something from you you’re not willing to give. A review, a blurb, an endorsement, an introduction to your editor, a private meeting in an alley somewhere. You get the idea.[/pullquote]What happens next slows everything down. Suddenly you’re Quicksilver from the X-Men movies. Your brain chugs along at normal speed while the world around you lurches to a stop. Your eyes track a single drop of condensation as it zigzags down your glass, out the corner of your eye you can see each flap of a hummingbird’s wings, and you know with some kind of creepy, prescient pessimism what’s going to come next:

The person in front of you is going to take a deep breath, blink, and then blurt out, “I’m actually going to self-publish my book next month. Will you blurb it for me?”

Welcome to the awkward moment (author edition).

The awkward moment comes in a variety of flavors, but many of them share a common theme: Someone wants something from you you’re not willing to give. A review, a blurb, an endorsement, an introduction to your editor, a private meeting in an alley somewhere. You get the idea.

Unless you’re a made-for-TV jerk like Dr. House or that new detective Backstrom, these kinds of moments are cringe-inducing in the purest way, because most of us in the writing community want to be helpful. Authors helping authors is a big deal, so what do you do when you’re suddenly faced with the dreaded awkward moment?

In my experience, it comes down to a matter of integrity, decorum, and ye olde Golden Rule. Let’s discuss.

In the example above, with the zombie-lovers-apocalyptic-vampire-cats-with-lasers self-published book, it ultimately comes down to a matter of integrity. Do you feel you’re the best person to do what they’re asking you to do (meaning, blurb the book)?

Not long ago, I was asked by a young writer I know to blurb her self-published book of poetry. She’s a brilliant, ambitious, talented young woman,but I turned her down. I don’t know good poetry from bad poetry, and despite my lifelong reading addiction, I have spent probably less than four hours total reading it. I have no idea what I’m talking about, so even if I did read her book and blurb it, my endorsement would have meant nothing.

The way I thought of it as I weighed whether or not to blurb her book was this: If my endorsement were to someday come under intense public scrutiny, could I stand behind it? I imagined myself being interviewed and asked to explain what I meant by what I said, and sounding like a fool because of my great, gaping lack of knowledge.

Bai Tide cover-2 [8]Integrity. Being able to mean what you say. It’s important.

As for decorum, it can be helpful in this case as well. To take us back to the lanai, you could proffer a business card and ask them to send you the first ten pages. This is standard in the industry, a kind of test to see if A) the person will follow through and B) their stuff is something you’ll enjoy reading.

If it’s great, hooray! But if it isn’t, here’s your chance to bow out gracefully. You can either reply that the book isn’t really to your taste and wish them luck with it, or you can offer suggestions for its improvement.

Here’s where the Golden Rule comes in. Put yourself in the other author’s shoes: What would you appreciate most? A kind send-off or some free critique?

For a different example, I recently swapped books with a fellow author. The fellow author self-published a thriller and, since I also write thrillers, we figured we’d read each other’s books and then write reviews. Pretty great, huh?

To be honest, the book I read was not ready for publication. Predictable plot, one-dimensional characters, and a huge Deus ex Machina looming over the whole thing that ruined any suspense the plot may have had. In short, it was something that would definitely have benefitted from extensive revisions. Interesting premise, but it needed work.

It was not something I would have blurbed, but this book was already published. It was too late for critique, not to mention I’d promised the person a review.

I thought long and hard about what to do, and ultimately decided to pull a Liz Lemon from 30 Rock. In that show, Liz’s character goes to her friend’s plays and, even though the plays are terrible, Liz finds something to compliment anyway (the lighting, the programs, etc.). I left a review I agreed with, praising the aspects of the book I did enjoy, and thus was able to escape the dreaded awkward situation without either hurting someone’s feelings or perjuring myself.

If you are lucky and hardworking enough to make it as an author, these kinds of situations will crop up. Ultimately, the only way out of them is to use tact and remember that no author succeeds in a vacuum. The key is to help where and when you can without sacrificing either your integrity or your kindness. Be polite, be kind, offer help where and when you can, and when all else fails, pull a Liz Lemon and compliment the typeface or something.

What was your awkward moment? And (more importantly) how did you handle it?