Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Tip for Aspiring Writers #249


Do not ask your Local Author to read your unpublished manuscript.

Yesterday when I got to work, I found a small padded mailing envelope in my mailbox. It contained a floppy disk and a note from someone who'd seen a story about me in the newspaper and wanted me to read her novel. "I realize you are very busy, but if you could find the time, I would forever be in your debt."

This kind of thing happens to me quite often, although I'm hardly a household word and have never gotten within a hundred miles of a bestseller list. I've had people bring me manuscripts in shoeboxes. I get e-mail from folks who want to know if I'll critique their 1,200-page fantasy trilogies. I sometimes meet people at parties who want to know if they can send me their stories, or their children's stories, or their next-door-neighbor's second cousin's stories.

My answer is always the same: Sorry, but no. I only read the work of current students.

I wrote a note to yesterday's Aspiring Writer explaining this, and advising that if she wants a critique of her work, she should either take a writing class or join a local writer's group.

Why do I only read the work of current students? There are two reasons: a) I'm being paid for it and b) It's very literally all I have time for. I'm sorry if this sounds harsh, but it's the honest truth. Come on; does anyone walk up to a surgeon at a party and say, "Hi, I know you're busy and all, but I was just wondering if you could whomp out my appendix, for the heck of it, for free?"

Reading and critiquing manuscripts is a lot of work. It's not something anyone can do well in five minutes. Reading the work of my current students takes nearly all of my reading time and energy, and sometimes it's difficult for me to get to everything they give me. (One of my current students gave me a story manuscript -- an unassigned piece he'd written on his own -- weeks and weeks ago, and I haven't read it yet, although I really do want to. I swore I'd get to it by Thanksgiving, and then I got derailed by my father's crisis. This weekend, I promise!) I have very little time for pleasure reading. I'm woefully behind in my field. I got books for my birthday in September that I really want to read, but haven't yet, because I simply haven't had time. I just agreed to review a new book on Tolkien, because I really want to read it and know that I'll only make the time if I have a deadline and an obligation. I don't have time to read the published work of award-winning authors I consider friends.

So no, I'm not even going to try to make time to read the unpublished work of strangers.

I suspect that often, the psychology of aspiring writers (and some of them will even come out and say this) is "But my work's brilliant! If I can just get the right person to look at it -- someone who's published, someone with connections -- then I'll finally get my lucky break, and the literary world will benefit from my genius."

That may be true. Really, I hope it is true. But if it's true, the happy discovery will have to be made by someone else.

So where does Aspiring Writer find that "someone else"?

In writing classes, or critique groups run by local writing organizations.

See, here's the thing. What you want is a group of people who are committed to your work and will spend time on it. You'll get that in a class because the professor's paid to teach it, and because responding to other students' work is a course obligation for your peers. You'll get it in a critique group because the other Aspiring Writers are as hungry as you are: they'll respond to your work because they want you to respond to theirs. It's an implicit contract.

And responding to other people's work is essential. It's much easier to see the flaws in other writers' stories than in your own, because you have more distance. But once you've gotten practice at analyzing other people's work and helping them figure out ways to fix it, you'll be able to transfer those skills to your own writing.

The key factor here is duration. The average class lasts several months; good critique groups can stay together for years. You want to find people who'll get to know your work over that length of time, who'll be able to tell when you're getting better (or worse) because they've seen your earlier writing and have a basis for comparison. Writing's a process; no one learns it overnight. You need readers who'll be with you for the long haul.

I tell my students to be very wary of weekend writing conferences, the ones that bring in Big-Name Writers to share gems of wisdom, and sometimes even to read manuscripts. These events can be a lot of fun, and you may even learn useful things, but the psychology of the attendees often seems to be, "If I can just get into the same room with Big-Name Writer, either some of BNW's genius will rub off on me, or BNW will recognize my inherent genius, and my struggles will be over."

It doesn't work that way. You're far better off working with Obscure Writer for several months in a class than spending a few hours with BNW at a weekend conference.

I also tell my students to be very wary of how-to-write books, especially of the "How to Write a Novel in Ten Easy Steps!" genre. If novels could be written in ten easy steps, everyone would be writing them.

Writing is an art, not a science. It's hard work. It's a discipline. There aren't any shortcuts. Anyone who promises you a shortcut is lying, peddling snake oil. There are a lot of snake-oil salesmen out there. Be very wary of them.

Addendum:

Gary has reminded me to warn you about one common species of snake-oil salesperson, the so-called "agent" who charges a reading fee to evaluate manuscripts.

Legitimate agents don't charge reading fees. Legitimate agents take a percentage -- usually fifteen to twenty percent -- of actual sales: they don't make money unless you publish. And, guess what: legitimate agents usually have more work than they can handle, which means that you generally won't find them handing out business cards at weekend writing conferences. I'm not saying it couldn't happen, but I am saying to be careful.

Do your homework, please. At the very least, google the person's name. Ask who this agent's other authors are, and find out if they've actually published books with reputable presses.

True story: I once got ecstatic e-mail from a former student announcing that she'd gotten an agent. When I googled the person's name, the first thing that popped up was a page of warnings and horror stories from a website for aspiring writers, talking about how this individual charged reading fees and then never delivered on promises.

Reading fees are almost always suspect, unless they're associated with literary contests . . . but some of those are suspect, too. Do your homework.

6 comments:

  1. Argh, I can't believe people do this.

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  2. I had a great week long course with a very famous writer whose best character talks in Gothic Capitals Learned a lot from him, but all he really had to say about my work was 'You're going to make it'. I haven't . . . yet. But there's time.

    I know what hard work it is and I'm pathetically grateful when anyone takes the time to say more than 'no'.

    That sort of 'agent' isn't as bad as a spammer, but there's not a lot in it.

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  3. If you don't have the time or budget for joining a workshop, but you are into fanfiction, that can also be a great way to improve your writing - write fic regularly, get a good beta (or three), take concrit, and you can learn an awful lot. And it's basically free, and can fit into your spare time :)

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  4. Velma3:22 PM

    I wish I could not believe that people do this, but even as a short story writer, I've been sent manuscripts to review. (The worst being THREE bad military sf novels, from the cousin of a friend, who is also a writer -- but since I know science fiction, somehow I wound up with them.)

    I bang my head, then reconsider, and bang other people's heads.

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  5. I've had this happen to me via my website which is very strange considering I'm not pubbed yet.

    The problem is, writing groups can be a bit of a challenge too. I just posted on my blog about toxic writing groups today.

    I'm getting to the point where I think writing is pretty much a solitary effort, that the creation is more important than the feedback in some ways. Or maybe that's just a sign I'm getting a little too sidetracked by the bureaucracy of creativity lately.

    By the way, I just found your blog via Change of Shift. Glad to hear your dad is doing well.

    M

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  6. Hi, M! Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the comment about my dad.

    I just read your blog entries about toxic writing groups, and agree completely. In my workshop classes, I require students to include both compliments and constructive criticism when they respond to others' work.

    Even if writers don't use critique groups, though, we all need trusted readers who can tell us what's working and what's not. My trusted reader is my husband: he sees everything I write before anyone else does (except maybe some blog entries!), and he has an unerring eye for problems. I've learned that editors always agree with him, even when I don't!

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