“Can I give you my manuscript?”

I had a great signing last night at my hometown bookstore, the Owl & Turtle.  Friends and family showed up, the bookstore graciously set out lovely platters of cheese and crackers, and I was reminded again why I live in this great town.  But I came home feeling badly about a dilemma that arose during the evening. It’s a dilemma that comes up again and again, and usually I deal with it the same way almost every other writer deals with it.

This time, though, it felt wrong.  And I regret it.

A young woman came to buy my book, and it turned out she went to school with my son.  She’s been working on a writing career and has written a book, but she’s not having much luck getting it published.  She brought the manuscript last night, hoping to give it to me.  I gave her my automatic answer: “I’m sorry, I can’t take it.”  Which is what I always say.  I’m offered scores of manuscripts at booksignings, and I just can’t accept them because I’d be overwhelmed by having to read them all.  Also, there’s the nagging legal issue of reading unpublished material that might be similar to something I just happen to be working on.  And then I’d get into trouble when my own book comes out and it looks like I copied someone else’s work. 

So my general rule is that I don’t even take a peek at unpublished work.

The young lady was very disappointed, of course.  It was busy with a line of customers, so I didn’t have a chance to give her advice on agents or submissions.  I could have done at least that, especially since she’s my son’s classmate.  And since she lives right here in town.  I regret not taking the time to talk more with her.

There are times when we have to break our own rules, and I wish I had last night.  So Brittany, if you’re reading this, email me.  Let’s talk. 

 

31 replies
  1. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    Hi Tess,
    To be honest youve been a hell of a lot nicer than a lot of authors. Perhaps what might be an idea would be to take a copy of blog entries that have come up ie the one about getting an agent, and putting it on a So you want to get published page on the website. That way when turning people away you can say, Im sorry that I can’t accept or read this, however there is some really useful advice that I wish I’d had here. (perhaps get some little cards printed with the website addy on them etc.)

    That way you are helping people, you won’t feel guilty and if its suitable with an agent going to bat for them you could give a cover quote etc.

    Whilst I know that a certain amount of work is involved in it, I hope that it would make you feel better tackling it this way.

    Congrats on the signing though and hope you have loads of fun at others.

    Anyway, all the best,

    Gareth

  2. Sue
    Sue says:

    See? That’s what makes you different. You not only explain why you did what you did, but then you try and make it better.

    I have a friend who is a published author who runs into the same situations.

    You actually care. Thank you. That makes you more ‘real’ for us faithful readers.

  3. tuttle
    tuttle says:

    Being desperately unpublished myself I understand her pain BUT its like anything else- you have to go thru channels. But its very generous of you to reach out to her but I’d watch that legality issue it’ll bite yer ass later on maybe—thats why that rule is there and thats why when I go to a signing I dont even think of it—the author is there to sell the books not to eat up time with each wannabe author who cant take the time to research the process as the rest of us do.
    (clears throat) well, thats my 2 cents on that….
    Perhaps you could have a small flyer that explains WHY you dont and cant read manuscripts and also a suggested short list of webpages or books they can buy or get from the library- the hugely popular Writers Guides to Agents or the one for Publishers can give her/him far, far more detailed advice then a cup of coffee for an hour with you.
    But this feels like an interesting story nonetheless–keep us informed on this womans story- I bet down the road she DOES get published because you reached out….just look at Ron McLarty and Stephen King!

  4. gasagasagirl
    gasagasagirl says:

    Tess:

    This year I’ve experienced a new level of frenetic energy from strangers/readers, so I can just imagine how many people approach you with their manuscripts.

    Earlier in my career, my husband advised me to limit my pro bono work to a certain number of hours, and I think I have to impose that limitation now with manuscripts. Two a year–that seems doable. So I’m done for the year.

    Glad you had a nice book launch in your community. I will definitely make one of your future events in L.A.!

  5. ec
    ec says:

    It’s hard, but working writers HAVE to turn down such requests; otherwise, there would soon be no time left to write. And at book signings and conventions, there’s only so much time you can reasonably take with one person when there’s a line behind her.

    That said, every now and then I encounter an aspiring writer for whom I’ll break all kinds of personal rules. Sometimes there’s a very strong feeling that I should offer whatever assistance and advice that’s in my (admittedly limited) ability to give. I’ve learned to pay attention to that voice; it’s amazingly accurate–especially when it warns me against giving unsolicited advice. 🙂

    Following up with these folk is easy when contact occurs through email, less so IRL situations. I like drostelnoch’s suggestion about bringing printed information to a signing or convention. Some topic-specific FAQ sheets, a business card with name and website/blog address–these can help ease the pain for parties on both sides of the info request.

    An FAQ sheet is also helpful in dealing with those who are looking not for advice, but for someone to do their work for them and/or ensure that they can be published without fear of rejection or “wasted time.” I find it very helpful to be able to say, “Here are some books/places on the web that will help you learn the skills and information you’ll need to reach your goals.”

    I write fantasy novels, so many of my readers are fairly young. At the risk of sounding like the old fart I seem to have become, a rather distressing sense of entitlement is not uncommon these days. One young man wanted to write Star Wars short fiction, but didn’t want to be bothered unless he was assured of publication. To that end, he wanted to send me a couple of pages. After vetting it, I was to send it along to George Lucas. If Mr. Lucas gave his approval, then, and only then, did this young man consider the effort to be worth his time.

    My mind boggled for hours after that email, starting with the concept that the author of one Star Wars novel and a few short stories has Mr. Lucas’s email address in her virtual rolladex. Quite some time passed before the boggling could encompass the kid’s chutzpah. 🙂

    I wish this was an unusual occurance. A more extreme example than most, granted, but not unusual. And I think that’s one of the reasons I occasionally feel compelled to break the rules that protect my writing time and form a hedge against copyright nightmares. An aspiring writer who’s working hard to learn the craft, pay his dues, and understand the industry is occasion for glee and optimism.

  6. agyw
    agyw says:

    Tess, I’ve lurked on your blog for awhile and so appreciate your generosity and honesty (Your post on the balance of married life and one’s inner creative life couldn’t have been more timely).

    My genre is not your genre(I’m a children’s author/illustrator), so you needn’t fear my imposing ideas/ms/book dummies, but I do understand this issue from both sides of the fence (and the fence is that real arbitrary demarcation-publication. Some of the best writers have yet to find their publisher, methinks). My crit group’s solution was to set up a website. Yes, it showcases our talents (I’m lucky to be in the midst of such talent), but it also gives real info and even some instruction in a field that is so competitive. Gotta love those FAQs!

    You’re right we should take our lives at a pace where we can judge each case, moment, idea, person at their face value, but goodness knows it’s a whizz. I hope your son’s friend emails you. Your generous to reach out. On the other hand, this business can be so brutal, if this is what it takes to discourage her, you might have saved her untold angst. Rejection and cold shoulders are the norm.

    Your blog, your website are resources. Links (gotta love Cynthia Lord, Ms Snark, Blue Rose Girls and Fuse #8 Production’s blogs if you’re a children’s writer). In other words if one has a passion, one will find the nurturance one needs to feed it.

    And for the record. Your words “So the last piece of advice about landing an agent: be a reasonable human being. It works outside of publishing as well. ” was some of the sagest advice. And I loved the article in Sunday Telegram, makes me want to have a cup of tea with you. Good luck on your launch, it’s an intriguing subject matter handled by someone who loves story. It doesn’t get any better than that.

  7. Craig
    Craig says:

    Tess, if you don’t hear from Brittany in a few days, write her a letter explaining why. I don’t know what’s kosher in publishing and what isn’t but maybe you could put her in touch with someone who could help her get started. I’m only suggesting this because you know her. If it was a total stranger, I wouldn’t bother.

  8. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    Tess – You did the right thing. I agree, send Brittany a note that explains why you can’t read it, but tell her that she’s on the right track if she’s completed a manuscript while she is still so young.

    On a brighter note (I think), Amazon emailed me to tell me they can’t send me Bone Garden for another week even though I ordered it back in August. I believe that must mean they’re sold out. I hope so.

  9. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    tess-seeing you are a doctor even though you don’t practice would you give medical advice about a specific condition(as opposed to recommending a healthy diet,etc)off the cuff at a social encounter?you could open yourself to a lot of trouble,right?how is this any different?i wouldn’t feel too regertful over it-hasn’t it been your policy for a long time to not accept manuscripts?i remember your blog entry on this very subject-but since she’s a friend of your son’s it probably wouldn’t hurt to explain that you have to be consistent

  10. Liz Wolfe
    Liz Wolfe says:

    I’ve heard for a long time that published authors are told to not ever read someone’s manuscript because of that reason. I always thought it was a little extreme. After all, how could what one writer wrote be that close to what another writer writes.
    Then, a few weeks ago, I started reading Lean Mean Thirteen by Janet Evanovich. Within a few pages there was a line that was almost identical to a line in my current WIP. Our stories are vastly different but what are the chances that those lines would be so much alike?
    So, it does happen. And, yes, I went back and changed my line so it’s different.
    It’s incredibly nice of you to post an invitation for her to email you. I hope she contact you because I think you’d feel better and she’d be getting some excellent advice.

  11. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    Wow, trying to offer a professional writer an unpublished manuscript goes a few degrees past simple naïvete. It should have been apparent to the young lady there would be myriad legal reasons why you could never do it. You think there are ‘Sock Puppets’ out there giving you a hard time now, Tess? Just think what would happen if you read an unpublished manuscript, and the author saw even a familiar word in any of your subsequent novels. I understand your compassion, but you were a first time novelist once. Did you ever try to hand off your newly written manuscript to a writer at a book signing? I think not. 🙂

  12. Tess
    Tess says:

    I got a very nice note from Brittany who, it turns out, reads this blog! So all is well. Thanks for all your comments — every one of them made a good point!

  13. tuttle
    tuttle says:

    Despite what I said above–I do wish Brittany THE BEST OF LUCK.
    It takes guts to approach a ‘celebrity’ seeking knowledge or help.

    Ahh, well, its a tough call in any case both for the wannabe and the author.

  14. Craig
    Craig says:

    You know, this discussion reminds me of what happened to George Harrison. If you haven’t heard a judge awarded the royalties from “My Sweet Lord” to the composer of “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. Remember that one? “Do-Lang Do-Lang-Do-Lang?” They do sound slightly similar. As I understand it the judge decided that George unintentionally plagiarized the melody, subconciously if you will. It is also my understanding that George never received a penny. How many cases of unintentional plagiarism, ie coincidence, could there possibly be? Tess, you are right on the money here. You simply can’t be too careful.

  15. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    tuttle-i’ve met tess twice and she definitely doesn’t act like a “celebrity”-just a genuine person who in spite of her claims to enjoying being a hermit “plays well with others”as i think they used to put it on our report cards eons ago :)-i’ve heard of some authors who are very well known who are distinctly unpleasant in person

  16. Darwindo
    Darwindo says:

    Ms. Gerritsen, I have only recently discovered your books. I find them very entertaining and I look forward to reading the entire series. As an ER doc myself, I find it interesting the surgical details in your books. I doubt any surgeon I know could write with such knowledge of medicine.
    Thank you.

  17. JMH
    JMH says:

    Tess: I think you’ve touched upon a real problem in the publishing industry, namely that established authors will not take the time or initiative to help newbies. Established authors will blurb each other ad nauseum, but when someone new to the industry requests a blurb or some advice, most established authors “don’t have time.” Two exceptions that I know of are Carolyn Hart and JA Konrath. Anyway, this is something that I would like to see changed.

  18. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    I don’t know… Sometimes, as a young writer trying to make it, it’s hard to understand why a successful (ie published, not necessarily Stephen King) writer doesn’t want to read our stuff and offer some help. Don’t they remember how it felt to be in our shoes, about how much we would appreciate just a little help in such an industry where agents and editors actually look for reasons NOT to like you? When did they become so selfish?

    Of course, these are the thoughts that run through our heads right after the “rejection” or upon hearing about it from others, but for me (at least) it quickly passes. I know that if every successful writer read every unpublished manuscript that was shoved under their nose, they wouldn’t have enough time left in the day to write. And, there’s also the idea stealing issue, and no author wants to get wrapped up in all that.

    The things that you do here, Tess, in your blog, and that other writers do on their websites and in books (Stephen King’s On Writing was AMAZING) really shows your drive to see all of us successful. And your anguish over not being able to talk to Brittany for just that second longer shows how much you really care about us.

    So, while I would love Stephen or you or Jo or even John Saul (who is notoriously rude to novice writers) to read my book and be so blown away that you show your agent, who turns around and gets me a $1MIL/book deal from St. Martin’s, I know it’s not really possible. But we all really appreciate the lengths that you DO go to. So, thank you.

  19. Joe Moore
    Joe Moore says:

    Every professional writer was once a wannabe struggling like Brittany to get even the smallest toehold into the profession. It’s unfortunate that the further along in a writing career you are, the more you must protect yourself and the more you must be aware of the liabilities that come with the territory. Tess, you did the right thing, but it says a lot about you in describing the pain and regret you felt for having to do so.

  20. penmewse
    penmewse says:

    Tess..
    You are in a difficult spot. You are so engaging that aspiring writers feel they can approach you. It’s when the propriety gets out of hand that the frustration begins. I would never, ever impose my ms. on you, I don’t care how long and how difficult a time I’ve had or even if we had some sort of thing in common. That’s not the point. There are so many magazines and books out there that advise, people to critique, and close internet research that’s involved in the creation of any book. The writer needs to work and work hard with that. I think it’s wrong to impose one’s ms. on someone who is incredibly busy and legally cannot be receptive to a big stack of writing and the critique involved.

    Decorum is a big part of the success of any venture and aspiring writers like myself should be aware of it. Decorum includes consideration which is part of professionalism.

    We all have to keep at it and at it and at it..it may take years. Again, there are so many resources to inspire. If we are meant to be writers, our dedication will see us to success. If we’re not, we have two choices. We can be even harder on ourselves and really make the best come out, or give up entirely. I know most of us don’t want to do that. But, my advice is do your homework, every single phase of it. If you have a full-time job, fit the writing in somewhere, either before or after. When you’re dead tired, write. When you don’t think you can make it, write.
    Fall in love with yourself and your ability, preen over a good phrase, glow over an excellent word choice. Just get good at it and stay at it (my advice to those who pack a ms. and bug busy writers for answers):)

  21. JMH
    JMH says:

    “Also, there’s the nagging legal issue of reading unpublished material that might be similar to something I just happen to be working on. And then I’d get into trouble when my own book comes out and it looks like I copied someone else’s work. So my general rule is that I don’t even take a peek at unpublished work.”

    I see a lot of comments that seem to echo some type “defense” to blurbing or helping a new author under the guise that there is some legal trap to avoid.

    Actually, my layperson’s understanding of copywright law is that concepts and ideas cannot be copywrighted, only specific strings of words can. So, for example, I could go out tomorrow and write “The Old Man In the Sea,” convey the same exact information and ideas contained in every chapter of the original, but so long as I do in in different words there would be no copywright violation. I could even use the same title. So, “being influenced” by someone else’s work is not a defense or an excuse to blurbing or helping another writer. In fact, many established authors blurb other authors based on MSs rather than the finished, printed book.

    The above in not intended to be legal advice and should not be construed as legal advice.

  22. ec
    ec says:

    My layperson’s understanding of law would preclude a situation in which a D.C. judge could sue a mom-and-pop drycleaner for $54 million because they lost a pair of pants. Nor could I ever imagine that he could keep up the legal battle for more than two years, despite the drycleaners’ repeated attempts to make a ridiculously generous settlement. It is incomprehensible to me that any court in the land wouldn’t immediately throw this case to the curb. Tonight the evening news included a mention of the Korean-American couple who ran the three small drycleaners. They’ve been forced to close two of them.

    My point, and I do have one, is that in this matter authors not only consider what SHOULD happen, but what CAN happen. I am not an attorney, but from what I’ve read about copyright law, there’s a great deal of grey area. And from a financial viewpoint, sometimes it doesn’t matter whether or not a lawsuit can prevail. The fact that it can HAPPEN is daunting enough.

    I write shared-world fiction, so I never, ever read fanfic set in those worlds. Nor do I read unpublished work set in those worlds UNLESS it is a work-in-progress under contract with the legal owner of copyright. This has nothing to do with an unwillingness to help new authors.

    Reading an unpublished manuscript by a would-be writer about whom you know nothing is very akin to picking up a hitchhiker. Probably nothing will go wrong. But it’s a risk many sensible people decline to take.

  23. JMH
    JMH says:

    “Nor do I read unpublished work set in those worlds UNLESS it is a work-in-progress under contract with the legal owner of copyright.”

    Everyone who puts words on paper AUTOMATICALLY has a copywright in those words, even if they’re not yet registered. That’s why MSs can be sent to agents and publishers without worry that someone will steal them.

  24. ec
    ec says:

    ec: “Nor do I read unpublished work set in those worlds UNLESS it is a work-in-progress under contract with the legal owner of copyright.”

    JMH: Everyone who puts words on paper AUTOMATICALLY has a copywright in those words, even if they’re not yet registered. That’s why MSs can be sent to agents and publishers without worry that someone will steal them.

    Not always.

    My post addressed shared-world fiction, authorized books in such settings as Star Wars, Star Trek, DragonLance, WarHammer, and the Forgotten Realms. People who put words on paper do NOT automatically have a copyright if they’re trespassing on the intellectual property of LucasFilm, Wizards of the Coast, or Games Workshop.

    For that matter, the people who write authorized shared-world books do not hold the copyright to their books even after those books are published. These are written under a work-for-hire arrangement; the author gets the byline, but the copyright belongs to the owner of the setting.

    What you say about copyright is true in most situations, but I was speaking of a particular corner of the publishing industry. In shared-world fiction, copyright is a bit more complex. Companies such as LucasFilm and Wizards of the Coast are very protective of their intellectual property. A while back, a woman wrote and self-published an unauthorized Star Wars book, which she marketed through Amazon.com. Let’s just say that this book is no longer available.

    There’s a lot of discussion as to whether fanfic is a violation of copyright, or whether it constitutes fair use. I’m not going to go there. To repeat my previous statement, I don’t read ANY unpublished manuscripts that are set in shared worlds UNLESS they are authorized works, under contract with the owner of copyright or a publisher who holds a license to publish books and stories in that setting. If someone came up to me at a fantasy convention and handed me the manuscript of a book they’d written in the Forgotten Realms, a world I’ve been writing in for nearly 17 years, I’d have to hand it back.

    And that brings up another point. There are many reasons why an author might decline to read a particular galley. This is only one of them. I don’t think it’s fair to assume that a refusal to read and blurb any given manuscript is indicative of an unwillingness to help new authors.

  25. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    can anyone tell me why (1)titles can’t be copywrited and (2)why anyone can seemingly remake any film whenever they want,or am i missing something here?

  26. JMH
    JMH says:

    EC: You’re getting way off the beaten path. Here’s my point: established authors, as a group, almost univerally do not help newbies. The general reaction by established authors appears to be, “What’s in it for me? How does it help me sell more books? How does it help me make more money?”

    This mindset appears to me to be very selfish. I’m in the legal profession, and many of us give hundreds of hours of work per year, per bono, to help others. We don’t ask the question, “What’s in it for me?” We just see someone who needs assistance and help them.

    One of the biggest flaws of the publishing industry is that established authors, as a group, don’t embrace that philosophy. Some do, such as JA Konrath, and to them I say, Way to go. To those who just make one excuse after another, well, that’s a different story.

  27. ec
    ec says:

    Here’s my point: established authors, as a group, almost univerally do not help newbies. The general reaction by established authors appears to be, “What’s in it for me? How does it help me sell more books? How does it help me make more money?”

    I’m sorry that your experience has led you to this conclusion, which with, based upon my own experience, I strongly disagree.

    Most of the authors I know DO spend a great deal of time helping other writers and doing writing-related volunteer work. We speak at schools and libraries, volunteer in writing centers, become literacy tutors, teach after school classes, act as mentors for high school senior projects (a requirement for graduation in my state), promote other writers on our blogs and websites, read manuscripts and provide blurbs, and answer countless email questions by aspiring and beginning writers. Check out author websites, and you’ll see that many offer a considerable amount of advice and information to new writers. Most of these activities do little to promote new sales.

    I could list a dozen things R.A. Salvatore, a top-selling fantasy author, has done to boost the careers of other writers. He offered to read and blurb a book that was a spin-off from his popular dark elf series, to forestall readers who might think he considered my book an encroachment on his territory. Author and freelance editor James D. Lowder has stuck his neck out on numerous occasions as an advocate for other writers. Ed Greenwood is incredibly generous with his time and talents–and not just when it comes to writing. I’m finding that the paranormal/urban fantasy community is incredibly supportive and generous. I could list dozens of times other writers have helped and supported me along the way. I dare say there are young writers who would say much the same about me.

    Despite the hundreds of hours of pro bono work you do each year, there might be people out there who are inclined to call you selfish because they are not the recipients of your assistance. If they don’t know–or don’t care–what else you might be doing with your time, it may well appear to them that you’re doing nothing at all.

    Time is a finite vessel; it will only hold so much, no matter how hard and long and efficiently you work. Last month I read and blurbed two manuscripts, one for a friend and one for a first-time author. I critiqued some essays for a local rising freshman who was nervous about his ability to write for high school, agreed to teach an afterschool writing workshop at the local middle school, taught a writing workshop at a local library (and offered detailed critiques, done outside of session, to those participants who wanted them) and answered dozens of email questions from young and aspiring writers. I also turned down four requests for blurbs. It is quite possible that those four people consider me a selfish bitch who couldn’t be bothered to spit on someone if they were on fire.

    Please consider the possibility that those who “make one excuse after another” are doing what they can, and wishing they could do more. I’m only a midlist fantasy writer, and there’s no possible way I could honor EVERY request I receive. People higher up the publishing ladder get an impossible number of requests. They’re going to have to say no, and say it often.

  28. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    Nibbling the earlobe, uhh, kneading the buttocks, and so on and so forth. So, we have all these possibilities before we stampede towards the clitoris, Watson.
    –from Monte Python’s THE MEANING OF LIFE (1983)

    Waltzing up to an author at a signing and asking, “Can I give you my manuscript,” is stampeding towards the clitoris.

    Enough said?

  29. kens
    kens says:

    Hi Tess,

    It is kinda late here in California and I am up late because I just finished reading The Mephisto Club. I have been turned on to your work pretty recently and am just starting to get into the Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles series. I thought The Apprentice was truly one of the most frightening books I have ever read. I think your work just keeps getting better as well, I couldn’t put The Mephisto Club down and finished it in an afternoon.

    I have never gone to an author’s website before, but just wanted to poke around yours and get a flavor of the type of mind that creates these amazingly tense, searingly frightening reads. Your blog today showed me what a caring and “real” person you are (I am not sure why I am surprised), dealing with the relatively everyday insecurities of potentially hurting someone’s feelings. Just by thinking about that interaction with Brittany shows the level of caring you have for a new, up and coming writer, even given the constraints place on someone with the level of success you have achieved.

    I am not a writer, or even an aspiring writer, just a fan who really has thoroughly enjoyed (and been frightened by) some of your more recent work and am pleasantly surprised to find such a warm, self-reflective caring person who has achieved the level of success that you have. It is (unfortunately) quite refreshing.

    As far as your anxiety/angst regarding the release of your new book, fear not, talent doesn’t just go away and your work is getting increasingly more satisfying. I eagerly await your new title and regardless of critics and the business side of the numbers, rest assured, you have one fan (and obviously millions more) who really likes your adeptness at scaring the crap out of folks.

    BRAVO!

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