On The Asking of Favors From Established Writers
It looks like it’s time to do a little more head-knocking regarding the life of a writer, so let’s just start knocking heads, shall we.
Dear currently unpublished/newbie writers who spend their time bitching about how published/established writers are mean because they won’t read your work/introduce you to their agent/give your manuscript to their editor/get you a job on their television show/whatever other thing it is you want them to do for you:
A few things you should know.
1. The job of a writer is to write. So, I’m looking at one of my book contracts. It says that I need to write a certain type of book (science fiction) of a certain length (100,000 words) by a certain time (er… Hmmm). In return, I get paid a certain amount of money. So that’s the gig.
Here’s what’s not in the contract:
1. That I critique the novels of other people;
2. That I offer any advice to people on how to get published;
3. That I arrange introductions to my agent, editor or publisher;
4. That I do any damn thing, in fact, other than write the book I’ve agreed to write.
The job of a writer is to write.
To which you may say, “Yes, but –” To which I say, you’ve gone one word too far in that sentence. There is no ‘but’ involved. Once again: The job of a writer is to write. Anything else a writer does is entirely on his or her free time and subject to his or her own whim.
Commensurate to this:
2. A writer’s obligations are not to you. Here is the list of the people and things to which I am obliged, in roughly descending order:
1. My wife and child.
2. My work.
3. My friends and the rest of my family.
4. My editors and producers.
Now, you might notice that you are probably not in that list. You know why? Because you and I don’t share a life bond/genetic consanguinity/mutually beneficial business relationship.
Now, as it happens, I also feel an obligation to my various “communities” — the spread-out groups of people who share common interests with me — and one community I think about quite a bit is the community of writers. However, two things here. First, my sense of obligation to the community of writers is both voluntary and rather significantly less compelling to me than the obligations I feel to those enumerated above, and also does not mean I feel obliged to any particular member of that community (i.e., you). Second, there are lots of other writers who may not feel a similar communal obligation.
You may or may not feel this is proper on their part or mine, but so what? It’s not up to you. Which brings us to:
3. The person who determines what a writer should do for others is the writer, not you. Why? Well, quite obviously, because it’s not your life, and you don’t get a say. And if you’re somehow under the impression that well, yeah, actually you do have a say in that writer’s life, take the following quiz:
Think of your favorite writer. Now, are you:
1. That writer?
2. That writer’s spouse (or spousal equivalent)?
3. Rather below that, a member of that writer’s immediate family?
4. Rather below that, the writer’s editor or boss?
If the answer is “no” to the above, then guess what? You don’t get a vote. And if you still assume you do, that writer is perfectly justified in being dreadfully rude to you. I certainly would be. I certainly have been, when someone has made such assertions or assumptions. And if necessary, I will be happy to be so again.
Beyond this, you don’t know the circumstances of the writer’s life, so you don’t know what his capacity is for doing extra-curricular good deeds for random strangers, or his interest, or his ability. The writer may simply not have the time. He may not have the connections. He may not feel competent to evaluate your work. Or he may just not want to, because after everything else he does, he’s tired and just wants to kill zombies on his computer.
Again, you may object to this, or feel your favorite writer should make a special exception for you and your work. But again: So what? It’s not your life.
4. Writers are not dicks for not helping you. Let’s say you ask me to read your work and I tell you “no.” What happens then?
a) You perish in a burning house.
b) You starve to death.
c) You die due to sepsis of the blood because both your kidneys have failed.
d) You are smothered by adorable kittens and fluffy bunnies.
The correct answer is “e”. Because you know what, my refusal to read your work has not damaged you or your work in any way. This is not a life or death situation, and all the normal ways of intake into the world of professional writing — the various query and submission processes, the workshops and writers circles — remain as open to you as they ever were.
Let’s review. When you ask me (or any writer) to read your work, you are asking for a favor. A favor is generally understood to be something that someone is not obliged to do and is indeed an imposition, to a greater or lesser degree, on the person being asked by the person asking. People are not dicks for refusing to grant a favor, and someone who believes them so either doesn’t understand the nature of a favor, or is a bit of a dick themselves for thinking that favors must or even should be granted.
Along this line:
5. People asking for favors from writers often don’t understand the consequences of that favor. You know, right after I announced that I was hired as the Creative Consultant for Stargate: Universe, people I didn’t know came out of the woodwork asking me if I could hook them up with gigs or send along their scripts or if I give them the e-mail of the producers so they could talk to them about this great idea they had. You know what would have happened if I had done any of that? If you say “oh, you’d probably have gotten fired,” you’d be absolutely correct. It would have been frankly insane for me to jeopardize my gig that way. I ended up putting up a note telling people to stop asking, but I still to this day get people who think that it’s somehow logical to ask a complete stranger who knows nothing about them (and who they know nothing about) to carry water for them.
When you ask a favor of a writer, you’re asking her to take time from her own work and/or her own life. You are asking her to assume you’re not crazy or won’t turn spiteful or angry when she can’t give you 100% of what you want. You are asking her to assume that 10 years from now you won’t sue her because something she’s written is somewhat tangentially related to something you asked her to read. You’re asking her to assume that continually pestering her own contacts on behalf of people she doesn’t know at all won’t jeopardize her own relationships with those contacts. And so on.
6. People asking favors from writers are often crazy in some undiagnosed way. Yes, I know. You’re not crazy, and you won’t become an asshole to the author, and you won’t sue them even though that story is exactly like yours was, sorta. But there are two things here.
First, the people who ask a writer to do things for them underestimate the number of times authors get asked for these sorts of favors. People: you’re not special when you ask us for our time/effort/connections. Personally, I started getting asked for hook-ups by strangers when I was still in college (I was freelancing for the Sun-Times then), so that’s two decades of being solicited, and no, not even posting a “why I won’t read your unpublished work” post here stops it, because lots of people believe, oh, that doesn’t apply to them.
Second, ask a writer and they will tell you a horror story of trying to help out someone by critiquing their novel or some other nice thing they tried to do in their capacity as a writer, only to have that person go completely nuts on them, for whatever reason. The specifics will vary, because crazy is a multi-headed hydra of abject terror, but just about every writer I know has a story. Some, who still believed in the fundamental sanity of people after such an experience, have two. Almost none have three.
The point is, you may be a nice, sane, rational person who will be grateful for any help you get from a writer. The problem is, other people out there are flat-out bugshit nutbags, and they are asking for the same things you are. It only takes one of them to ruin it for the rest of you, and the problem is that from the outside, you all look pretty much the same. Sorry.
7. Writers are not mystical door openers. At least not in a professional sense. If I read your novel and critiqued it, the critique will tell you how to make to novel more like something I want to read. But you know what? I’m not an acquiring editor at a publisher, and what I consider readable and what that editor were to consider saleable are likely not in parallel. Likewise, I could introduce you to my agent or editor, but I guarantee you that neither of them are going to suspend their judgment to rely on mine; they will happily reject your work if it doesn’t suit their needs, even if I love it insensibly.
The most I or almost any other writer can get you, professionally speaking, is a small jump ahead in a line. But if your writing doesn’t work, you’re still going to get rejected. And if I spend all my time touting people who my agent and editor end up rejecting, in a very short period of time I’m going to become someone you definitely don’t want on your side.
What it comes down to is that the belief that selling work really comes down to who you know is magical thinking, or at the very least it’s wildly overrated in terms of what actually sells work. Yes, there are authors for whom their assurance of a blurb on your cover might convince a publisher to buy your novel, sight (and quality) unseen. Currently, they are called “Stephenie Meyer” and “Dan Brown.”
As for every other writer in the land, well, it’s nice you imagine us with such mighty powers. But you really are better off simply submitting your work the regular way.
Finally, there’s this:
8. Writers remember: If you ask for a favor and I say no and your response is to throw a fit about how elitist writing assholes such as myself are pulling up the ladder after us and we all suck, I will remember that. If you ask for a favor and I say yes and you don’t end up getting what you want and you throw a fit about it, I will remember that too. If you ask for a favor and I say no and your response is gracious, I will also remember that. And if you ask for a favor and I say yes, and you do end up getting what you want, I will remember how you respond to that as well. As will any writer in my position.
What will it mean that we remember these things about you? On one hand, it might not matter much. On the other hand, writers, like all professionals, talk shop. We talk shop with other writers, with editors, with publishers and with everyone else in our little industry. Occasionally we are in a position to help people. Occasionally we’re in a position to influence the selection of a writer for an assignment. Occasionally there’ll be work we’ve been offered and can’t take, but will be in a position to suggest someone who can. Occasionally we’ll switch hats and become editors or producers and be in a position to buy work. And then, of course, remembering will, in fact, matter.
It doesn’t mean I or anyone else will take the opportunity to be a dick, mind you. We will simply remember who we think is worth helping or considering, and who is not.
And that’s something for you to remember.
And now we’re done.