On Valentine’s day, I guest-blogged over at that great website MurderSheWrites.com, about my experience with an unpublished writer who’d just finished his first manuscript. My blog wasn’t actually about manuscript critiquing, but about how writers have to pay attention to their emotions when they write. My blog received a number of comments from readers. Among them was this one:
“How nice. I wonder if you remember when YOU had just finished writing your very first novel. Who helped you along on the journey? Or did all of your published (and not) friends avoid meeting with you, assuming you’d written nothing “marginally publishable”?
I’m sorry new novelists offend you, Tess. I’m glad you weren’t on my “must call” list when I finally completed the monumental task of finishing my first book. I may never have completed the second.”
My response to that? Thank GOD I’m not on your “must call list.” Because not only will you EXPECT me to be thrilled to read your work, you’ll also probably be truly pissed off if I tell you I don’t like it.
When I was a first-time novelist, with my first manuscript, did I expect a published friend to to spend eight hours (or more) reading it and critiquing it?
Absolutely not. I wrote my book and I landed my own agent. By myself. That’s how I thought writers were supposed to do it.
I think it’s perfectly legitimate for unpublished authors to ask published authors for agent recommendations or about trends in the marketplace. And these questions should be asked in a way that minimizes the published author’s time commitment. If she’s a good friend, then you can do it over coffee. If you barely know her, then by email. But I would never have dreamed of asking a busy novelist to read my entire manuscript.
And now that I’m a published novelist, I avoid reading them. Here’s why:
First, there’s the time factor. I get several requests a week from unpublished, unsold writers wondering if I’ll read their manuscripts. (I am NOT talking about novelists who’ve already landed a publisher and are seeking blurbs for book covers. Those are legitimate requests. I can’t honor most of them due to time constraints, but I do try.) If I were to say yes to every unpublished author’s request, I wouldn’t have time to write my own books. And truly, I’m astounded that people whom I don’t know, or hardly know, would come up to me and essentially ask, “Say, will you spend eight hours reading my incredible literary work?” Because that’s what it works out to. Eight hours of work.
And if you don’t see my point, think about this. What if someone you barely know says to you: “Hey, wouldn’t you love to come over and spend eight hours cleaning my house?”
You’d tell them thanks, but no thanks.
Which will then earn you the resentful comment: “But you OWE it to me because your house is so clean! Your clean house makes you OBLIGATED to help me!”
If the person asking me to clean their house is my mother or an elderly friend, you betcha I’ll go over and help clean the house.
Same with reading manuscripts. Mothers and close friends get special dispensation.
But when I hear unpublished authors whine that published authors are OBLIGATED to help them get published, that’s when my blood goes from simmer to boil.
Then, there’s the other reason I don’t read unsold manuscripts: It can lead to legal nightmares.
This is not just an excuse that we authors give to avoid reading unpubbed manuscripts — this is a real and serious concern for us. My literary agent has a bestselling client who, to be nice, once agreed to read an acquaintance’s unpublished manuscript. Then she got sued. By this very acquaintance. “You stole my story idea!” was the charge.
Needless to say, my literary agent now warns all her clients not to read unpublished manuscripts written by people they don’t know well.
I myself had a similar experience. I teach a writing course once a year down in Cape Cod, for doctors who want to become writers. Soon after my book BODY DOUBLE came out, I got a threatening email from one of the course attendees who said she was taking action to sue me for “stealing her idea.” The idea that I supposedly stole was about pregnant women getting murdered for their unborn babies.
I didn’t remember this woman. I never read her manuscript (it was read by someone else on the course faculty). And the idea I “stole” is hardly steal-able, as the murder of pregnant women for their babies is a crime that pops up in the news just about every year. But what if I HAD read this woman’s manuscript? What if (as often happens in literature) there WERE similarities in our plots? I could have ended up in court. I could have suffered through months of stress and attorney’s fees.
All because I read an unpublished manuscript.
Maybe I’m coming across as a hard ass about this. Yes, I know there are heart-warming stories out there, about New Author John Smith who got published because Bestselling Author Jane Doe read his manuscript, loved it, and sent it to her agent. But I can guarantee that John Smith didn’t just send it to Jane Doe out of the blue, and tell her that she was OBLIGATED to help him out. Maybe Jane was teaching a writing course, and he was her student. Maybe they were already friends. Maybe Jane judged a writers’ contest, and his story stood out. (While teaching writing courses, I myself have discovered terrific unsold manuscripts, and have always been happy to help shepherd them to a literary agent, because I LOVE it when a new author lands her first book sale.)
But approach an author you hardly know and ask her to read your unsold manuscript?
Think of it as a reverse Nike ad.
Just Don’t Do It.