Conflict Resolution 101: An Author’s Guide

No author is immune to conflict. Whether the disagreement is sourced in a contractual dispute, or concerns about edits, or in the misinterpretation of a social-media post, authors will inevitably have to engage in some classic dispute-resolution activities.

The Thomas-Kilmann instrument provides five different conflict modes for assessing conflict resolution:

  • Competing — win/lose
  • Collaborating — win/win
  • Compromising — minimally acceptable without damaging relationships
  • Avoiding — withdrawal and neutrality
  • Accommodating — conceding to the other to maintain harmony

In general, you’ll find that collaborating or compromising makes for the best strategy. Locking into a win/lose paradigm, or hiding from the conflict, will serve no one well; those strategies encourage escalation or bullying behaviors.

Authors experience conflict from one of two points of view — when the author is the victim of bad behavior by a publisher, editor or agent (author as hero); or when the author is the person who’s engaged in the bad behavior (author as villain). Let’s explore both scenarios.

Author as Hero

For whatever reason, you as an author occupy the moral high ground in a dispute. The problem could be anything — maybe a publisher missed a deadline. Maybe an agent lost your manuscript. Maybe an editor introduced errors into your story. Doesn’t matter what caused it, what matters is how you deal with it. Some suggestions:

  1. Read your contract. Verify whether there are provisions that govern dispute resolution and, if there are, then follow them. Sometimes contracts extend a specific make-whole clause, or a notification-of-breach clause, that must be honored before the contract itself is in jeopardy.
  2. Reach out in good faith. It’s always better to bring something to the other party’s attention in a brief and polite way, by assuming error instead of malice. A friendly tone and a charitable approach helps set the framework for subsequent discussions about the problem. Most disputes go off the rails when one party accuses the other — implicity or explicitly — of acting in bad faith. In the publishing industry, bad-faith behavior is much less common than good-faith errors related to capacity.
  3. Don’t make it public. Never take a disagreement to social media, or a blog, or a writers’ forum. Not only are you backing the other side into a corner — opening the door to unhelpful tit-for-tat commentary — but you’re also leaving a public paper trail for subsequent partners (editors, agents, publishers) to find. No one wants to work with prima donnas. If a future partner is interested in you, but then they discover that you have no qualms airing grievances in public, your odds of receiving a contract may be substantially harmed. No publisher, agent or editor worth his salt will contract with an author who’s established his willingness to engage in public reputational assaults. In addition, “going public” exposes you to potential civil action for defamation, especially if your side of the argument isn’t proven to be as solid as you thought it was when you first typed your angry Facebook rant.
  4. Avoid going “pseudo-legal.” Terms like breach of contract and default are legal concepts that sometimes require a finding by a court of competent jurisdiction. Unless you’ve consulted with an attorney, it’s safest to avoid asserting that the other party is legally deficient in his obligations. Instead, simply point out the part of the contract you think the other party has missed and open a dialogue about how to rectify the problem. Starting your conversation with an indictment rarely promotes collaboration.
  5. Omit the 95 Theses. It’s never necessary for you to recite a litany of perceived abuses or your beliefs about the other party’s competence or integrity. Focus on one problem. Avoid blowing a molehill into a mountain by venting spleen about all the things that frustrate you. Avoid personalizing the situation or offering opinions about the other party that aren’t related to solving a specific problem.
  6. Watch the clock. With contracted authors, it’s usually safe to request a 30-day response window. Avoid putting unreasonable response deadlines in your correspondence, especially when you know that the recipient’s typical response time is much longer than what you demand.
  7. Consider whether you want to die on that hill. Not all problems necessarily require a solution. Even if you are technically in the right, think about whether the situation really needs a fix. Sometimes, just letting a process play through to its conclusion proves the wiser strategy.

Author as Villain

Maybe you screwed something up. Or writers’ block precludes timely manuscript delivery. Or you got caught introducing copyrighted material into your work. Or your just not happy about something that’s legit, but not to your preference. In any case, the publisher/agent/editor caught wind of it, and now you’re on the hot seat. Some suggestions:

  1. Read your contract. If you’ve been accused of violating the terms of your contract, read the contract to identify the relevant provisions and whether the contract offers an adequate make-whole clause that you can take advantage of. Although it can be scary to hear that you might be in breach of contract, recognize that sometimes such notification is just a formality and can be easily fixed without undue drama. If you cannot understand parts of your contract, seek guidance from a licensed attorney in your community.
  2. Negotiate a good-faith fix. If you didn’t hold up your end of the deal, offer a solution that might be mutually acceptable to both parties. For example, if you were required to submit edits within 90 days, and you got a notice at day 100 that you’re late, commit to delivering by day 120 — and stick to it. You will usually have no difficulty in minor adjustments as long as you offer a reasonable alternative. You need not be apologetic or fall on your sword, either; admitting to a default isn’t usually a good idea should the matter later be subject to litigation. But politely offering a counter-offer, without belaboring the point, can often prove a useful solution.
  3. Take a deep breath before responding. Authors are creative people, and creative people can sometimes be quick to anger. Rule of thumb: Never answer when your blood pressure is elevated.
  4. Avoid social sandbagging. If you’ve had performance challenges under a contract, or even if you’re just in general not thrilled with progress even though the contract is still being met, it’s best to not get passive-aggressive with snarky social-media posts or emails, or bad reviews on Facebook or author sites. By engaging in this kind of behavior, you risk poisoning the well should there be a need for dispute resolution later in the process.
  5. Ask for a second opinion. Sometimes authors and editors disagree about something in a manuscript. Usually, such disagreements can be negotiated away. However, occasionally a point can’t be finessed into non-existence. If your editor, agent or publisher insists on a specific change and won’t take no for an answer, it’s best to take a step back and bring that disagreement to a circle of trusted peer writers. Solicit their honest feedback. Odds are good that the “other side” has seen several different skilled professionals arrive at the same conclusion, so you’ll do yourself a favor by having your own critique group help you to determine whether you really should buckle down for a fight, or concede that the scene you love so dearly isn’t as good as you thought it was.
  6. Don’t light a forest fire. If you’ve made a mistake, own it. Don’t make matters worse by trying to find some mistake — however obscure — by the other party and thereby turn it into a tit-for-tat situation. Your goal should be to stop the fire that’s consuming a single tree, instead of seeing the fire and then spreading gas on the surrounding forest.
  7. Respect the editorial division of labor. Some things important to authors — e.g., cover designs — may not be under the author’s control. The division of labor between authors and publishers follows from each partner’s role in getting a book to market. Even if you promised Aunt Sally that she could design the cover of your debut novel, the decision about that cover is rarely at the author’s pleasure. By getting hung up on the things that aren’t the author’s responsiblity, the author can inadvertently create tension that makes dispute resolution about other problems much more difficult. Focus on doing your part of the process well, and let your parners do their part of the process well.

Ultimately, your goal as an author should be to minimize or fix problems as they occur, in a way that does not alienate the other parties to an agreement. Publishers, editors and agents should do likewise. By focusing on collaboration and compromise instead of winner-takes-all ego battles or hide-in-the-sand avoidance behavior, you can build a robust partnership with your professional colleagues that can survive the occasional bump in the road.

5 Tips for Writing for the Literary Market

I recently enjoyed a lovely email conversation with a local author whose book we at Caffeinated Press declined to publish. She successfully passed the first hurdle in the query chain — she had a good pitch, with a lovely sample — and on the strength of that query, we solicited the entire manuscript. Yet after reviewing her magnum opus, we concluded that the project wasn’t a good fit for us, despite that the work was well-written and certainly relevant to a West Michigan audience.

The novel included very heavy Christian Reformed themes. Too heavy for us, but not quite pure enough for the local religious publishers.

The book is worth reading. It’s worth publishing. It’s not aligned with our catalog, unfortunately. And, on reflection, I suspect the author will have a really tough time positioning the work in its current form with any publisher.

The problem that this author experiences is by no means uncommon. Writers what they write, but not everything that gets written can be positioned effectively on the open market. It’s therefore imperative for authors who intend to seek publication that their work aligns with the current market needs of publishers. (Of course, if you’re writing to self-publish, or writing for the sake of the art, this rule obviously isn’t as salient.)

Some thoughts:

  • Avoid fusion genres. A “fusion” genre is any story that mixes genres — e.g., a sci-fi/horror/romance/Western blend. The challenge with fusion is that publishers (and, much more importantly, booksellers) must pick a dominant genre category. Most retailers don’t have a separate fusion shelf, because fusion isn’t a recognized category in ISBN metadata. So if you write that sci-fi/horror/romance/Western novel, where would the book be shelved? For people interested in the genre, a mixed-metaphor novel is unlikely to attract much attention; after all, if you enjoy Westerns, do youreally want to try a Western with liberal sprinkles of sci-fi, horror and romance themes? Probably not. There’s not much of a market for fusion because people like what they like. Fusion usually works better within themed anthologies instead of stand-alone long-form publications.
  • Follow genre conventions. If you write within a genre, then respect that genre’s rules. In a romance novel, for example, the typical plot arc involves people meeting, falling in love, struggling to keep the love burning against the odds, then overcoming the barrier. A romance that consists of people meeting, falling in love, separating when the going gets rough and then agreeing to “just be friends” isn’t really that compelling. Reviews will tank, along with sales. As restrictive as genre conventions can be, for readers of genre fiction, the audience (usually) stays loyal to the genre because they expect to get something specific out of their reading experience. As a self-published author, you may deny your readers their reward at your own financial peril; as an author seeking a publisher, the publisher is unlikely to risk a contract on a potentially low-reputation, low-revenue project.
  • Didacticism is a double-edged sword. Some authors write to make a point; that point infuses whatever genre and plot/conflict matrix they elect. Didactic writing can be extremely powerful — but it can also be offputting to publishers or agents who either don’t agree with the philosophical point, or who understand that the point might poke the bear for a fairly large swathe of the potential readership.
  • Lit-fic doesn’t sell, usually. People who write poetry or literary fiction for the mass market are unlikely to see significant revenue absent criteria like being already famous, winning some sort of award or major favorable review, or publishing with a large imprint. Small- and mid-sized publishers generally don’t sell literary fiction well because there’s not a huge buyer’s market for it, like there is for throw-away romance or horror novels.
  • Biographies or memoirs of non-famous people don’t sell well, either. Your family history is interesting, but it’s unlikely to sell well with strangers. The more hyperlocal the content, the smaller the audience, until the audience gets to be so small that the project won’t even recover its production costs.

Your best against goodness-of-fit rejections? Look at what the market already supports. If you can position your work solidly within a constellation of known sellers, you’ll do a better job of convincing a hesitant agent or publisher to give you the green light.

Two Brief Reflections: Winning NaNoWriMo, and Governance

I did it — I crossed, barely, the 50,000-word mark on The Children of St. William’s to earn my third consecutive “win” for National Novel Writing Month. The story isn’t finished, of course; my detailed scene graph pushes the final word count much closer to 85k. But working through the story when you’re at 50k aiming for 85k is much easier than starting from zero. Which, I believe, is the whole point of NaNoWriMo. And as I finished, I figured I’d change the book name, too, to the less cumbersome Six Lost Souls.

Some take-away observations about writing this past November:

  • I wrote my last 10,000 words in a single marathon day. That’s a lot. I couldn’t have started the month with that kind of productivity, mostly because — for me, anyway — I have to get north of 30k to 35k words before scenes start to roll off fluidly. Prior to that, and I’m still spending too much time thinking about structure and characters, so the writing process is slower: I’m making follow-up notes, thinking through the finer points of character voice, making decisions about scene details, etc. I tend to plan in detail, but you can’t plan for everything.
  • Much of my writing in the moment focuses on dialogue. I usually have to swing back after I’ve finished a scene to insert environmental details.
  • I don’t write much action — most of my scenes tend to be people arriving at a place and talking. I varied it this time around, however, and had a fight scene and two scenes of extended narration while a character does something alone. On rewrite, I’ll chop things up a bit. But, as they say, just knowing you’ve got an authorial quirk is half the battle.
  • For the first time, I was deliberate from the get-go about my point-of-view characters, and which scenes led with a specific POV. By default, I tend to write Third Person Limited, with a small number of POV characters.
  • I couldn’t write nearly as efficiently without Scrivener for Windows. With this app, I can condense notes and research and plot my story on a chapter-and-scene basis, with target word counts and synopsis cards. I can also configure various status flags for each scene (I customize my own) and set color codes to indicate which character’s POV governs a chapter or scene. I don’t think I could be nearly as successful if I had to rely on a generic word processor.

State Leaders’ Summit

I spent some time last week in Chicago, for the State Leaders’ Summit sponsored by the National Association for Healthcare Quality. The event went off without a hitch. I drove, which was fine, although I managed to hit eastbound I-90 around O’Hare just in time for Friday-evening rush-hour traffic. Took a full two hours to get from the airport area (Cumberland Avenue) to the Skyway Bridge. That said, there was much fascinating discussion to be had, including a valuable two-hour presentation by an association-management attorney about the basic principles of governance and legal/tax compliance for small non-profits.

Board members have three duties: A duty of care, a duty of loyalty and a duty of obedience. I think this tripartite distinction offers a good framework not just for business endeavors, but also for how we nurture personal relationships. More to ponder about that, I think.

Strategic Planning Retreat

Tonight the Caffeinated Press board of directors conducts a four-hour annual strategic governance retreat. Lots on the agenda. We’ve had a busy year, with a great mix of successes and … ahem, opportunities. We’ll cover Governance 101, plus look at our board composition, 2016 editorial strategy, the annual budget, and ways to grow the market.

The retreat starts after the regional TGIO party — celebrating the end of NaNoWriMo — so it’ll be a long day. But worth it.

What Would Impel You to Murder?

Statutes recognize several distinct grades of legal culpability when one human kills another. Deaths resulting from the acts of a perpetrator who didn’t intend to kill and had no ill will for the decedents — i.e., the crime lacked intent and malice — may end up with a manslaughter charge, whereas a death arising from the perpetrator’s failure to exercise due care might be charged as a negligent homicide. When a death occurs because of the willful act of the perpetrator, then the charge becomes murder and falls into one of three degrees. Many crimes of passion get charged as second-degree murder. Premeditated killings earn a first-degree murder charge. Layered into the mix are a host of defenses — insanity, self-defense, accident, impairment, victim retaliation, etc. — that attempt to minimize the mix of intent and malice that lead to specific charges and specific sentences.
The law’s judgment, however, imperfectly squares with moral judgment. To many ethicists, killing in reasonable self-defense — including during combat — and killing that follows from an unforeseeable accident, both carry minimal moral culpability. A person’s moral burden increases when a death results from an avoidable set of circumstances, like intoxication or reckless driving. It increases further when a killing that might legally be justified nevertheless could have been avoided with non-lethal approaches to conflict resolution. It increases still further when the perpetrator put himself into an environment where there was a known and avoidable risk of violence, like when an angry husband returns home to confront a cheating wife. When you cross into the threshold of first-degree murder, an ethical distinction follows from the reason for the crime; this reason may appear in sentencing memoranda but usually not in the charge. In general, the more the act of murder depersonalizes the victim, the higher the level of ethical censure.
Let’s shift gears. I’ve been doing a lot of editing of short stories for the Brewed Awakenings anthology. As part of my prep, I’ve visited libraries and bookstores to browse recently published novels and anthologies, to get a better feel for how certain plot devices unfold or how other authors manage the flow of dialogue and contextual information within a scene. What I’ve taken away from that exercise is that for many writers — although, to my satisfaction, none in our anthology — killing is something that just seems to happen, often without malice or intent. Murder becomes a plot device that’s divorced from any real grasp of what the crime actually entails in the real world. (It’s curious how many contemporary novels rely on killing and rape as staple plot conventions, despite near-universal condemnation of the practices. Perhaps there’s something significant in that.)
For an average person, the innate prohibition against murder is so strong that the only realistic way he’d kill another is by accident or through avoidable impairment. So when authors craft tales about premeditated murder, the killer rarely works when he’s an archetype of Joe Sixpack. Premeditated murder by a psychologically competent offender occurs for only a small number of reasons:

  • Financial or reputational gain (contract hit men, insurance windfalls, gang violence, failed drug deals, prison murders)
  • Revenge (grudges and other personal animosities against a known victim, honor killings, failed marriages)
  • Jealousy (knocking off a rival for someone’s affections, envy over the good fortune of another, killing a scorning lover)
  • Service to a cause (ideology, religion, sociocultural tribal codes)
  • To avoid exposure (cover up other crimes, silence whistleblowers)
  • To gain exposure (school shootings, serial killing, police-assisted suicide)
  • Bias (hatred of known or unknown others who exhibit a disfavored characteristic, tribal initiations, out-of-control bullying)
  • Thrill (killing for fun by a person not psychologically compromised, BDSM snuff activity)

Of course, reasons for premeditated murder by the psychologically incompetent run the gamut — “the voices made me do it,” etc. — but that class of perpetrator is less interesting because they’re acting out on disordered compulsions, so their actions are rarely voluntary in the sense they rationally consider their motive, means and opportunity to kill another absent any legal justification for doing so. In this sense, although some serial killers are impaired, certain diagnoses within the DSM-V don’t rise to the level of acute psychological disorder that removes moral culpability. A person with antisocial personality disorder, for example, has a diagnosis that may well be admissible at trial, but all but the most severely afflicted can still function normally and make rational choices about first-degree murder.
All of the above having been established, the question for authors is straightforward: Can you explain why a rational person willingly ended the life of another? The cultural and even instinctive taboo against unjustified homicide runs deep. A person rarely just wakes up one day and snaps into Murder One (that’s what Murder Two is for); the sequence of events leading to the pulling of the trigger or the wielding of the knife take weeks, months or years to develop. Introducing a premeditated murder at random makes for a thin plot.
But the larger question rolls beyond authors and includes everyone. What stops us from killing? For some, it’s that pre-rational inhibition rooted in culture, religion or instinct. For others, it flows from a panhumanist love for all living things. And don’t forget the fear of arrest, trial and incarceration and the deep loss of friends, family and freedom that follow. Or about the physical difficulty that comes from subduing another and the exposure to blood and internal organs that may dissuade the squeamish. Authors rarely seek recourse to the rich literature on ethical paradigms; if they did, they’d realize that certain ethical frameworks justify the don’t-murder injunction using starkly different logic models. (Consequentialists, I think, have the hardest time with this problem.)
There’s no such thing as a random killing. Each murder has a reason for its commission that outweighs the relative risk of its consequences. For authors, there’s probably some wisdom in avoiding the rape-and-murder trope unless you can paint a compelling character sketch of the perpetrator — why did he do it, and why didn’t the fear of consequences deter him?
For everyone else, it’s a useful exercise to consider the circumstances that could lead you to cold-blooded murder. And if you find that you cannot list any, then follow up with the question: Am I deceiving myself?