[Cross-post with Storytellers Unplugged]
To the unpublished writer — and maybe there’s another level here we’ll call underpublished — life on the other side of the divide can seem like a place of rarefied air.
This can lead to some erroneous assumptions, including about what writers farther down the path can actually do for someone still at the trailhead.
I doubt I know a single veteran writer who didn’t, at some early point, reach out to touch some of that mojo and see if a little might rub off. I certainly did. Most accomplished writers, I’m convinced, won’t hesitate to give others the benefit of their experience, when asked.
But if your expectations are unrealistic, or based on erroneous assumptions, this will, at best, lead to a fruitless exchange. At worst, it could completely undermine what might have been a valuable association.
Myth 1: Publishing is a tight-knit cabal intent on keeping you out.
Some people apparently believe that the publishing world is structured like a coalition of country clubs where everybody with a byline periodically gets together to compare elbow patches on their tweed jackets, then circle the wagons and blackball everyone else.
This can, perversely, be more comforting than this unappealing diagnosis: that if you’re not making any headway, maybe it’s because your stuff isn’t ready for prime time. Yet.
Another possibility: You know how you’re always hearing about people losing out on job opportunities because prospective employers know how to use the Internet too? And can see what these people are really like? Editors, along with everyone else, are more likely to shy away from someone whose online conduct makes him look like a paranoid sociopath with rage issues.
You only have a certain amount of time and energy. Devoting them to conspiracy theories may mean you’ll never lack for company … although it will never advance your cause.
Myth 2: Authors are eager to read the unpublished, unsolicited work of strangers and will drop everything to get right on it.
They’re not. Sorry.
Most of us already have reading lists that would take 3 lifetimes to get through even if all we were was a head in a jar, with one finger on the outside for turning pages.
Another reason? Fear of accusations of plagiarism. We live in a litigation-happy world where anyone can sue anyone else for anything. Including “stealing my ideas.” If this is a factor in a writer’s refusal to read your work, it’s no reflection on you. It’s simply a policy in place to deny that one buzzing human mosquito out there an entry point to sink his proboscis. It’s easier to fend off a potential accusation by establishing a clear precedent of not reading unpublished works, period.
Now, why ask a stranger or distant acquaintance to read something in the first place? Ah, now we’re getting to the heart of it…
Myth 3: It materially matters whether a writer tells you if something is any good or not.
We all need validation. We all want to know, early on, whether we might actually have something going, or if we’re just deluding ourselves and wasting our time.
Except, in my experience — and I bet I’m far from alone in this — the person who’s asking for an honest reaction is really prepared to hear only one answer.
Yet even if they get an appraisal that raises their hackles, so what? It’s just one person’s opinion at one point in time. And one person’s opinion, in a vacuum, doesn’t mean much.
It’s just a verdict. This isn’t what a hopeful writer really needs. In truth, if it’s so early an effort that the writer can’t even tell whether it’s any good or not, then the odds are that it’s not publishable. As is. But could be, with more work.
What a hopeful writer really needs here is detailed feedback, possibly on an ongoing basis. This isn’t something that a working author is in a position to provide on demand. It’s time-consuming and takes a lot of focus. Most working writers are too focused on their own work to act as an unpaid editorial advisor to anyone who asks.
The alternative? Classes. Workshops. Reading and critiquing groups. None of which, thanks to the Internet, have to be based close to home. These may not provide the immediate encouragement or ego boost of having the writer give some piece of work a thumbs-up, but in the long run, they’ll do the writer more good, by providing actionable feedback.
Myth 4: Published authors can hook you up, no sweat.
“I just need a publisher,” someone once told me.
As if I could tell this querent right where to go, and done deal.
Contrary to popular belief, authors aren’t plugged into the system in any broad sense. Their connections are often limited to a relatively tiny sphere of active participants in current projects. They don’t necessarily know, or even need to know, who’s reading for what, who’s buying, who may be a likely candidate for a particular manuscript. This is what agents are for.
Oh, okay, I just need an agent, then. Could you…
Not so fast. Working relationships like these are valued, and virtually all working writers are sensitive to how insanely busy editors and agents are. And are reluctant to add to their workload with continued referrals. To expect otherwise is to put the writer in an awkward position.
I can count on one finger the times that I’ve actively interceded, sending a novel to a likely-to-be-receptive editor. But in this instance, the writer had been a friend for years, and someone whose work I’d admired for even longer, who’d published numerous pieces of short fiction, and had a lot of people anticipating what she would do for a first novel.
At most, I expedited what was already destined to happen as a result of her own hard work.
These things do happen, certainly, but when they do, they’re more likely to happen because a friendship or association developed naturally, without expectations. And because they were earned through years of sweat equity.
Myth 5: Published writers don’t care about anyone else and are only out for themselves.
Which is sometimes the conclusion after all else fails.
Again: Most writers, I’m convinced, are willing to give others advice and the benefit of their experience. They want to see others do well. They want to see hard work rewarded and new talent flourish.
But, realistically, they can do only so much. Their time is short and their influence limited.
Ironically, the people I’ve felt most compelled to assist, in whatever small way I could, were the ones who asked for the least.
These are the ones who seemed to understand — by their actions, and not just lip service — that one’s time is a valuable resource.
That the hard work and legwork were up to them, and nobody else could do it for them.
In short, these were the ones who had already mastered the art of professional conduct, regardless of how many times their bylines had seen print.
They got it, and this was obvious in how they presented themselves.
In my experience — and I bet I’m far from alone in this, too — there are 3 kinds of people who ask for advice:
(1) Those you never hear from again, because what you’ve told them sounds too much like more work.
(2) Those you don’t hear from again right away, because they’re too busy acting on the advice they’ve received.
(3) Those you do hear from again right away, because you must’ve been holding back before, and there really is more you can do for them, if they’re just pushy enough.
Two out of three ain’t bad.
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