Monday, June 29, 2015
I've spent the last few weeks moving forward with my stuck manuscript. I'm usually a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of writer, but since the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results I decided to try a new approach. Instead of just diving in with the umpteenth rewrite, I took a step back and did a little planning--something I almost never do.
I can't believe how much of a difference this approach has made.
Sometimes you have to do a 180 to get a fresh perspective. Do you have a stuck manuscript? Here are a few ideas to help you get back on track. They really worked for me.
Immerse Yourself in Other People's Words. The best way to get inspiration is to read, read, read. Read classics, read contemporary authors, read non-fiction and poetry. Learn from others. I'll truly never understand writers who don't like to read or who say they avoid reading when they're working (What? You're not working all the time?). I know I'm reading a great book when it makes me want to run to my computer and write. I love this quote from Lisa See: "Read a thousand books and your words will flow like a river." Amen.
Share Your Work With a Trusted Reader. When you don't know how to move forward with a piece, it's often a good idea to get a fresh perspective from someone who is an avid reader in your particular genre. He doesn't even have to have mad editorial skills to be helpful--the reader's reaction alone can be informative. Which scenes or characters stand out for him? What themes is he picking up? What piqued his attention? Where did it wane?
Write Out a Sketch of Each Character. How well do you know your characters? The more specific you get about each character the easier it's going to be to get to the heart of the story. Knowing your character goes far beyond superficial details. Even though I had a complete manuscript with well-developed characters I still sat down and wrote out everything I knew about them. What I discovered is that throughout the manuscript my characters' motivations and wants were a little cloudier than I thought. It's not enough to know what they're feeling--you have to know what's at stake for them and what they're willing to lose. I'll have more specifics on this in a future post.
Make an Outline. Most writers belong in one of two camps--outliners and wingers. Some need to plan out the entire plot in advance, while others--like me--follow wherever the characters take them. I've been a longtime proponent of winging it, believing in Robert Frost's assertion "no surprises in the writer, no surprises in the reader" but I'm changing my tune a little bit. I've realized that part of the reason why my story wasn't working was that I'd failed to make some key decisions. The plot was chugging along, but since I didn't know my characters as well as I should have, their actions weren't specific enough. To remedy this problem, I went through the entire manuscript and wrote a summary of what needed to be accomplished in each scene. I also wrote summaries for scenes that appeared to be missing. As I did this, the story became much more focused. Now, as I'm rewriting, I'm able to approach each work day in a more relaxed way because I've already decided what each scene needs.
Keep the Momentum Going by Setting Goals. When you feel ready to tackle your rewrite, set a deadline and tell others about it to hold yourself accountable. I've chosen August 31st as my deadline (with you , dear blog reader, as my witness). In order to stay on track, I've divided the number of days until my deadline by the number of chapters. I need to edit a chapter every three days in order to keep on track. I have written each chapter deadline on my calendar so I know where I stand. Currently, I'm three days ahead of schedule--yay me!
Write Every Day. Until now, I've given myself weekends off. I'll probably go back to that schedule eventually, but right now I can't imagine letting a day go by without doing a little editing. It's been tough with summer break and the kids being home. I have to steal my writing time anyway I can. The confidence I'm feeling right now is a brittle, fragile thing. I can't afford to let myself get stuck again.
What do you do to get unstuck?
Friday, May 29, 2015
It's been an interesting week.
As some of you know, I've found myself in new territory this year. I finished the first draft of a novel that I love but that my agent doesn't. My original plan was to put it on the shelf for a while and move onto something else, another novel that I started a few years ago. Instead, I gave the draft to a trusted friend, a novelist who has a lot of experience in the field. He gave it a read and the verdict is in: he loved it. Maybe even a bit more than I'd hoped he would.
We met for coffee and had a long talk about agents. I learned some interesting things. My friend has had the same agent for over thirty years and they've had many disagreements. As one might expect, agents have biases. Depending on the kind of novel my friend turns in, he already has a sense if his agent will or won't like it. Agents also have their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to editing. My friend listens carefully to his agent's suggestions and if he strongly disagrees, he then turns to his editor as a tie-breaker. Ultimately, my friend decides what stays and what goes.
It was empowering to be reminded that I, as the creator of the work, have the final say. I've generally approached criticism with an open mind and trust that when someone finds a problem with my work there must be an issue that ought to be addressed. I also trust in the expertise of others and think that those who ignore counsel do so at their own peril. And yet there's a time, I'm beginning to see, that maybe you need to trust yourself more.
I received a few great podcast suggestions after last week's blog post, one of them being OTHER PPL with Brad Listi (thanks to MWPA's Joshua Bodwell for the suggestion). Listi is the Marc Maron of the literary world and I've been immersing myself in his author interviews. One that stood out for me is a conversation with Stewart O'Nan. His approach is to work is to be slow and steady and to roll with the punches. Among his more traumatizing moments in the publishing business: the time his publicist left in the middle of a book launch and the time the entire staff of his publishing house was fired. Hearing these stories made my current squabble with my agent seem small. I've been writing professionally for twenty years and yet I'm still so green.
So now that I'm feeling confident, I will ride this wave and dive right in. I will spend the summer taking my friend's and my writing group's suggestions and power through another rewrite. I will "write a little every day, without hope, without despair" as prescribed by Isak Dinesen.
I am back.
Friday, May 15, 2015
I'm not one of those writers who can sit still for 10-12 hours. I can put in a good 3-4 hours before the quality drops off and I need to move around. With two young kids and many different obligations, I spend most of my time attending to other matters. When I'm not writing, though, I pop in my earbuds and listen to podcasts that feature books, writers, and the creative process. It makes me feel productive, even when I'm not.
Here are seven of my favorite podcasts:
Accomplished actors reading short fiction by great writers in front of a live audience--what's not to love? The mix of old and new writers gives listeners the chance to be reacquainted with revered storytellers and to discover new talent. Listening to actors read is a master class in how to perform a story.
The complete antithesis of SELECTED SHORTS, in that the stories are usually autobiographical and often told by regular people. The storytellers are not allowed to have any notes, but Moth editors help them shape the stories and emphasize certain beats before each performance. The stories are confessional, usually funny, and often heartbreaking. There's a lot to learn here about storytelling. The supportive audiences are a good reminder for all of us who have to speak in public that most audiences are on your side.
A WAY WITH WORDS
Etymology at its most entertaining. Hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett field questions from callers about the origins of phrases and words. The historical tidbits and cultural references revealed are fascinating. With a couple of puzzles thrown in, it's word nerd heaven.
WRITERS & COMPANY
The Canadian Broadcasting Company's Eleanor Wachtel is the queen of the literary interview. While the authors she interviews every week are the crème de la crème of the writing world, the real star of the podcast is Wachtel herself. Unlike many interviewers who seem to have superficial knowledge of the book they are discussing, Wachtel is a thorough, informed reader. She is not only versed in an author's current book, but his entire oeuvre. Wachtel also has a firm grasp of the author's history and makes fascinating connections between his work and his past--often to the surprise of the author himself.
THE LEONARD LOPATE SHOW
Lopate interviews a range of guests, many of them writers and artists. Unlike Eleanor Wachtel, Lopate seems to have a superficial grasp of any particular topic he is covering, which allows him a layman's approach to any subject. His intense curiosity and sophistication lead to insightful questions that he fires off at terrifying speed. Many of this guests end up being thrown a little off-kilter, which allows for refreshing moments of candor.
THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY PODCAST
In depth interviews with interesting people (many of them authors) in front of a live audience. The conversation generally steers toward the creative process and the role of art in our lives. The tone is casual but insightful and reflective. It's an easy-listening podcast, yet still thought-provoking.
INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
This is where I go when I want to find out what's shakin' in the publishing industry. In-depth reviews, reports on publishing trends, and bestseller news make me feel like I'm still in the literary loop.
What's your favorite podcast for writers?
Friday, May 8, 2015
I've had quite a few moments of self-pity. I've felt spent, used up, obsolete. I've felt like the literary world is a grand ball and I am a wallflower, thrilled to be invited to the party but worried that I'll never really fit in. I've spent far too much time fretting over how much time has passed since my last novel. I've looked at the titles on the bestseller lists and decided that the type of books I write are a real long shot for that kind of success.
Blah, blah, blah. Funny how the universe seems to know just when to give you a good kick in the pants.
One day, while I was sulking and cleaning the house (to make myself feel worthy and useful), I was listening to an episode of The New York Public Library's podcast. It was an interview with Cheryl Strayed, the author of WILD. While they were talking about publishing and the writing process, the interviewer relayed this story told by EAT, PRAY, LOVE author Elizabeth Gilbert:
[I found the transcript of the story here.]
I have a friend who’s an Italian filmmaker of great artistic sensibility. After years of struggling to get his films made, he sent an anguished letter to his hero, the brilliant (and perhaps half-insane) German filmmaker Werner Herzog.
My friend complained about how difficult it is these days to be an independent filmmaker, how hard it is to find government arts grants, how the audiences have all been ruined by Hollywood and how the world has lost its taste…etc, etc.
Herzog wrote back a personal letter to my friend that essentially ran along these lines: “Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.”
I repeat those words back to myself whenever I start to feel resentful, entitled, competitive or unappreciated with regard to my writing: “It’s not the world’s fault that you want to be an artist…now get back to work.”
Wow. This was exactly what I needed to hear. I copied Herzog's quote and hung it above my desk.
I've been repeating this mantra to myself every day. It helps me remember that this life, this career is of my own choosing and by extension so are the problems that accompany it. No one has asked me to write. The world will continue on just fine if I don't. But I won't be all right--I'll be miserable. So I must write for me and no one else. I will let go of expectations. I will stop whining and get back to work.
And you know what? Suddenly, I felt the pressure lift off my shoulders. Last night, I was minding my own business, when ideas for the novel surfaced. I grabbed a notebook and starting writing as fast as I could. The well, it seemed, had been replenished.
Friday, May 1, 2015
As you know, Dear Blog Readers, I am an optimist by nature and tend to use this platform as a place of encouragement and support. While my view of the publishing industry may seem overly sunny at times, it's because my six years of working in NYC exposed me to many of the smart, well-intentioned, passionate people who work in the industry. Everyone I've ever met who works in publishing is crazy about books and getting good manuscripts into the hands of readers. I like to mention this as often as I can because it pains me to hear these people being repeatedly maligned by those who have little understanding of what really goes on in Big Publishing.
That being said, things can and do go wrong--and I would be remiss to gloss over the bad times. If I'm here to share my experience of the writing life, then I have to be honest when things get tough. Since we writers can be competitive and a little bit protective of our reputations, I think there's a tendency for us to avoid talking about failure. Maybe we don't want to appear vulnerable. Still, we do each other a disservice when pretend we everything is rosy all the time.
As I wrote in a previous post ("The Summer of Crazy"), last May I turned in my first draft of a novel I've been working on in fits and starts since my twins were born ten years ago. At the time, it felt terrific to finally complete something after being out of the publishing world for so long. I was sure it was my strongest work to date and was thrilled to finally show it to my agent. Unfortunately, my agent didn't share my enthusiasm. I cried for two days.
When we discussed the story at length, he raved about the writing but thought the plot needed some work. His comments were insightful and on the money. I felt better--energized and ready to get back to work. I did a round of revisions, pretty sure that I fixed all his points of concern.
I was wrong.
We had another discussion and this time I felt a little fuzzier about what I was supposed to aim for. I did a second round of revisions. I took an ax to the manuscript. It still fell short.
Third round of revisions. This time I felt like I was completely in the dark. I was losing confidence and interest. I was beginning to go against my own instincts. We both knew this was bad news. In the end, my agent's verdict was the same: it wasn't coming together the way he would like. Time to put it aside. Did I have any other stories to develop?
This was really tough news to hear. How could I possibly toss away something I've spent so much time and effort on, especially when I felt this was my best work and that maybe, just maybe he was wrong? I cried--though much less than the first time around--thinking about all the time I'd lost and how the manuscript wasn't any closer to publication. I went to war with myself, considering my options:
1) Throw in the towel? Every author has a book or two in their closet that had to be scrapped. This will be mine.
But I can't imagine giving up on this story. This is some of the best stuff I've ever written. My gut tells me that one way or another, something from this manuscript will be published.
2) Cannibalize the story? I could chop the novel up into separate short stories or use a character for something new so it wouldn't feel like a complete waste of time.
This is a realistic solution, but something I'd like to avoid having to do.
3) Step away from it for a while? Maybe if I put it aside for at least six months I could gain a little clarity and figure out on my own what needed to be fixed.
Aside from losing more time, this is a good plan.
4) Get a second opinion? Share it with a few trusted readers to get their take on it. If they feel the same way my agent does, then I'll have to really do some soul-searching.
Yes! Other opinions are exactly what I need right now. It can help me make an informed decision about what to do next.
5) Get a new agent? Maybe it's time to find someone else who can better articulate what the story needs or whose vision is closer to mine.
Something to consider, but not something I'm inclined to do. Aside from this hiccup, we have a good relationship and I trust him. Plus, he's a top agent. Trying to find another agent is a big risk on many levels.
So, after thinking it over a bit, my plan was to set it aside for a while and come back to it in six months with fresh eyes.
Then, an interesting thing happened: I met with my writing group. I had been giving them a few scenes at a time to get their opinions and the response was overwhelmingly positive. They seemed to love the characters and were very invested in the story. They couldn't wait to read the rest and wanted me to send all of it at once instead of in dribs and drabs. I couldn't believe it....and I was more confused than ever.
Suddenly, I found myself unable to put the story aside. I contacted a friend of mine who is a novelist and he offered to take a look. I'll be interested in hearing his point of view. I have a feeling he'll be a 'tiebreaker' of sorts and his feedback will give me a better sense of how to proceed.
In the meantime, I'm polishing an old short story I've been wanting to finish and hope to send it around in a few weeks. It will be nice to have something else to think about for a while.
Have you encountered a big setback in your writing career? How did you move forward?
Friday, April 17, 2015
[Update: I've now included a link to the video of Pat's Reading here.]
As some of you might recall, I did a few blog posts back in 2008 following my friend Patrick Robbins as he cloistered himself in an Airstream trailer to write his first novel. While the manuscript came together very quickly, it took six years before the book was published. Read my follow-up interview to find out how Charles Schulz, Greg Brady, and an old friend eventually helped to make Pat's dream come true.
How does it feel to be a published author?
Oy! (To coin a phrase.) This is something I've wanted for years, decades even, and now that it's here... it's just as good as I always imagined it. Picture a combination of the satisfaction in a long-term job well done and the delirium of an oil well finally coming in. I would compare the whole thing to a sports team winning a championship - on the one hand, "Mission accomplished, gentlemen." On the other hand, "WE WON!!! WE WON!!!"
I mentioned in a previous post that your first book signing felt a little like a graduation party--it's one of those few events in life when you are surrounded by so much love and support from your friends and family. How do you remember that day?
|Photo by Alina Pauksis|
Your road to publication was a little bit unusual. Tell us how it came about.
I started sending letters of inquiry to agencies and got between forty and fifty rejections. After a while, you start to believe these people really know what they're talking about. One [agent] said it was clear I had real talent, but my book didn't seize the reader by the throat within the first five pages and that's what was selling these days.
Looking for another way to skin a cat, I got in touch with a friend of mine who's a branding strategist. At the time, he maintained the Facebook page of Barry Williams, a.k.a. Greg Brady on The Brady Bunch; he said he'd have Barry talk about my manuscript [on Facebook] and ask for help getting it out there. Ninety-eight percent of the responses were "Get it self-published!" or "Can't help, but it sounds great!" But one man said, "I think I can help your friend" and left his contact info. I called, we talked for a few hours, and he said to send the manuscript to his agency, with his recommendation. "But don't you want to read it first?" I asked. He said that it was his experience that when you do good, good comes back to you. I'll never forget him for that act of kindness to a guy he'd never met.
I sent in the manuscript and, mirabile dictu, they were interested and wanted to represent it. I took it through three more drafts per their request. After the third one, they wrote to say that it still hadn't come together the way they wanted, and they were going to step away from it. That was pretty devastating - so close and yet so far. On the other hand, it was three drafts better than it had been.
At this point, enter Thom Hayes. He was my boss [when I worked at] Barnes & Noble. He read a draft or two of the book and told me not to give up on it. But I had. When the world reaches a consensus, it's very, very hard to go against the world. I chalked it up to bad luck, consoled myself with the fact that I'd actually written a novel, and got on with my life.
Then, maybe a year and a half ago, Thom said he was going to be starting a publishing company, 3 Wide Press, that was going to focus on sports titles. He asked if I'd let him publish my book once he got the company going, even if it was outside the company's mission statement. Hey, sure, I said, it's good to plan ahead. Then I promptly forgot about it.
Last December, Thom wrote and said, "Are you still cool with me publishing TMOH?" By the end of February, I was holding my book in my hands. One with a bar code and everything. The whole trip took six and a half years; if it had taken half that long, the book would not have been as good as it became. My dad, who taught high school English for over 30 years and still reads two or three books a week, told me after he'd read his copy, "The first draft was the work of an adolescent; this is the work of an adult." I grew up with To Make Others Happy, and it introduced me to a lot of true heroes. I'm truly grateful that the road to publication was as long and winding as it turned out to be.
Publicity and marketing for a first-time author can be a real eye-opener. What has surprised you the most?
The biggest surprise was that I didn't get responses to emails that I sent stores. I crafted a hell of a cover letter, emphasizing my/my book's connection to the various towns these stores were in, and got no responses. I would've guessed that emails were how many of their author contacts were born, but apparently not. So I've switched to actually driving out to the stores, letting them hold the book, making eye contact as I make my pitch. It's worked a lot better. It's also nice to see their faces light up when I tell them the book has a national distributor.
Have you used social media to get the word out?
I've created a Facebook page and have taken initial steps on my author page for both Goodreads and Amazon. I'm also a regular contributor to two blogs - I'm features editor for Cover Me, a blog about cover songs, and I'm "Grandpop Culture" on Acts of Geek - and I spread the word there. I don't Tweet, but frankly, some might consider that a blessing.
You've said that TO MAKE OTHERS HAPPY is inspired by Charles Schulz. What's the connection?
A series of Peanuts comic strips from 1961. Lucy asks Charlie Brown why he thinks we're put here on Earth, and he immediately responds, "To make others happy." Instead of saying "You blockhead!", as is her wont, Lucy dwells on this response over the course of three strips. [TMOH] is divided into three parts, and each part begins with the dialogue from those strips (thanks so much to the Schulz estate for granting permission). An even closer look will reveal that each part of TMOH is a sort of mirror to the Peanuts dialogue - but where I take a hundred pages to tell that segment of the story, Schulz only needed four panels. He was a genius. He had punchlines like "There's no heavier burden than a great potential" and "This world is filled with people who are anxious to function in an advisory capacity."
In many ways, the relationships at the center of the story reminded me of THE GREAT GATSBY.
Very much so - of all the Books You Have To Read In High School, it's probably my favorite. I like books where the first person narrator isn't the center of his own story (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is another good example of that); you're as close to the hero as you can be without being in his head, and as the hero affects the narrator, so he affects us. Also, in TMOH, Ned and Nadine are second cousins, while in Gatsby, Nick and Daisy are second cousins once removed. And Tedd Long, Nadine's unpleasant partner, is a sort of Tom Buchanan. I didn't set out to write a Gatsby Jr., but as I wrote, I recognized that there were distinct echoes; I figured the best thing to do would be to not look at Gatsby at all during the writing and rewriting, for fear of being too influenced. But I couldn't resist one good tip of the cap; Nadine, talking about a restaurant says, "The place is full of money," which is a mini-tribute to Gatsby saying of Daisy, "Her voice is full of money."
At my last writing group meeting, we all lamented the fact that what we write is often so vastly different from what we love to read. For example, a friend of mine loves literary fiction with a gothic or fantasy element but is finding that her latest work is a straight-up genre piece. Do you find this disparity in your own work?
To be honest, no, I don't. My work is grounded in old-school storytelling, in no small part because that's the kind of stuff I like to read the most. I'm talking William Goldman, Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark, Stephen King, the short stories of Irwin Shaw, that kind of thing. But I also love the lyrical flourishes of Fitzgerald, Amy Hempel, Kyril Bonfiglioli, Mark Kram, and more. So if the writer is keeping the story moving, but also taking the time to have fun with the language, the field they're writing in doesn't matter so much to me. I see the genre as the clothing and the storytelling style and craft as the body. Keep the body in shape and you can dress it any way you want.
I met you when we were both undergrads at Colby, where we both studied with Jennifer Boylan and Richard Russo. You later went on to get your MFA from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. What are your thoughts on the MFA/no MFA debate among writers?
I'm pro-MFA. Quick story: I was in a tavern with several others from the program, and there was a lot of griping going around about office politics, who taught which classes in which rooms, etc. Someone said I must be mad with the program, as I was unable to land a teaching gig and was therefore paying off the whole thing with student loans (I'm currently $49K in the red). I said that I couldn't be mad because I was becoming a better writer, which was exactly why I went there, so anything going on around me that didn't interfere with that was just white noise to me. Kind of brought the discussion to a grinding halt.
Where it helped me the most was with rewriting. Grad school was where I finally learned how satisfying it was to rip out the middle of a story, to arrange a sentence so the most important part came as close to the period as possible, to always look for better verbs, to seek and destroy the passive voice.
If you learned everything you needed to know about writing from a quality undergrad program and from extensive reading and writing, God bless you. Nothing wrong with that at all. Me, I needed that extra fine tuning, and in my MFA program, I got it.
Are you working on anything right now?
I've got two ideas I like - wunza road trip / treasure hunt, wunza story of an actor turned cop. I'm further along on the first idea - I've got the whole thing plotted out on index cards and have written about twenty pages - but I'm taking down good plot points and quotes for the second idea as they come to me. Now that I've quit my job of five and a half years, I'll get to make some real progress on both of them. That's the plan, anyway - if things progress like they did with the first book, we may not see them until 2021 or so. Well, something to look forward to!
Patrick is scheduled to read from and sign copies of To Make Others Happy at Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, NY, on May 9 at 3pm, and at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, MA, on May 19 at 7pm. Good seats still available.
Monday, April 6, 2015
For those of you who don't know, I used to work in the accounting department of a literary agency. My job was to process royalty statements, but I'd often make the rounds to chat with agents and assistants. The mountains of unsolicited manuscripts the agents had to read was staggering. Stacks and stacks of paper would cover every available surface, bookshelves, and occasionally the floor (this, clearly, was before the age of electronic submissions). And every day the mail carrier would bring more. The assistants' jobs were to separate the wheat from the chaff. If the assistant liked a particular manuscript they'd write up a report about it and then pass it on to the agent. It's a wonder they ever had time to do anything else.
One time I remember chatting with an agent who was bemoaning the fact that she was interested in a particular manuscript, but found the writer to be difficult to deal with on a personal level. "He calls every a day to see if I've finished reading it and then I can't get off the phone with him," she said. "I can tell he would be a difficult client." After a lot of careful thought--and one too many calls from the author--she decided to pass.
It was so unfortunate that this talented author shot himself in the foot. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but I've seen it happen time and time again. While good manners won't make up for a manuscript that's lacking, bad manners can definitely tip the scales against you. There are simply too many talented writers out there and too many choices for agents. They have the luxury of being extremely selective.
I'll admit that the submission process seems a little backwards. You are submitting your work to gain the approval of someone who is ultimately going to work for you. It's like going to an audition before hiring an attorney. Since agents work on your behalf, some authors feel they have the right to be aggressive or intrusive during the submission process. Also, publishing is a competitive field and our culture rewards ambition. But really, the author-agent relationship is more of a collaboration and the submission process ought to be looked upon like a job interview. You apply for a job at a company that interests you and the employer decides if you're the right fit for the company. Likewise, you have chosen to submit your manuscript to a particular agent because you like their reputation and area of expertise, and now it's agent's turn to decide if they want to be in a partnership with you. If ever there was a time to be on your best behavior, this is it.
During the course of their careers, writers develop reputations based not only on their writing ability but also on their level of professionalism. We've all heard stories of famous writers who act like divas and I can't help but think that their lack of manners close doors on occasion. Likewise, those authors who are a joy to work with are revered within the industry. Agents and editors move around a lot in publishing. Whether you choose to build bridges or burn them, your past actions will likely affect you at some point in the future.
So what does it mean to act like a professional? Much of this is obvious and falls under basic manners.
Respect Other People's Time. Be on time for meetings, functions, appearances, scheduled phone calls. Honor deadlines. If you think you can't make a deadline, contact the person as soon as possible so they can plan around it. During phone calls a little small talk is appropriate, but keep in mind that the person you're speaking with has a lot of work and other authors to attend to. Read social cues. Keep it short and to the point.
Be Kind to Assistants. Sure, assistants are usually fresh out of college, but they are also the ones who picked your manuscript out of the slush pile. Most are sharp, friendly, and eager to please. They are also the ones who get things done. Treat them like the ally that they are.
Show Your Appreciation. Hand-written thank-you notes are rare and classy. So are gift baskets. When someone goes above and beyond for you, let them know how much you appreciate them. Kind words are free and always welcome.
Don't Talk Trash About Others. Not just editors and agents, but other authors as well. The publishing world is small and fluid. Snarky comments will come back to haunt you, guaranteed.
Be Humble. There are thousands of talented writers in this world-- remember that you are one of many. Nothing will alienate your colleagues faster than thinking you're God's gift to the literary world.
Respectfully Disagree. When the inevitable dispute arises, state your case calmly, clearly, and respectfully. As in any business partnership, being honest while carefully choosing your words to express yourself will get you much closer to your goal than failing to keep your anger in check.