On the matter of asking favours from the professionals

Over on his blog Whatever, John Scalzi has brought up the matter of asking established writers for favours in these three posts. I think the whole issue has been dealt with pretty comprehensively in John’s posts and the ensuing comments. I think everything he said was perfectly fair and reasonable. Speaking as an unpublished writer, I find the idea of asking a person I don’t know to invest large amounts of their time and/or personal credibility into me or my work to be presumptuous to say the least. Even asking someone I do know to do that strikes me as more than a little bit off, if that person does it for a living. It’s one thing to ask a friend who you know well to look over your work. If you know them well enough, the pair of you trust each other not to overreact to any discourse on the matter and you know that asking your friend this isn’t too big an imposition on their time, then fine. However asking someone who you don’t know/barely know/exchanged a few comments with on a blog or twitter is so far beyond the realms of normal behaviour it verges on ridiculous.

If you’re someone who does this, if by some miracle should a writer agree to look over your work, what are the various outcomes you can realistically hope for?

A.) That a writer whose skills you admire says something like “Nice job. Well done. You should submit this for publication.”… This won’t get you an “in” at a publisher. You’ll still have to go through the submission process and chances are that you’ll still get rejected several times from several different publishers. This will make you feel embittered and betrayed because you had your hopes built up after the praise from a pro. This is not a good outcome.

B.) That a writer whose skills you admire says something like “This needs a lot of work before being ready for publication. A professional editor really needs to go over this with you to iron out the problems.”… You still have to go through the submission process like everyone else, only now you’re doing it with a sense of doom and a severe knock to your confidence in your ability. You think editors are going to read it, dismiss it as amateurish hackwork and ignore it. This is not a good outcome.

C.) That a writer whose skills you admire says something like “This sucks. Really badly. It has no redeeming qualities of craftsmanship or artistic merit. It’s not even entertaining pulp. I recommend that you stick with your dayjob and never put pen to paper again, for fear of embarrassing yourself amongst people who actually understand what good writing looks like”… After a blasting like that, who would even consider submitting that work? You’ve just been attacked and demolished by someone who you admired and possibly even looked up to a little. Not only have you put yourself in a situation whereby your confidence will be torn down around your ears, but you’ve probably lost the ability to enjoy the work of a writer you previously admired into the bargain. This is not a good outcome.

If you’re an unpublished writer and you want some feedback on your work then you really have two options. The first one is to join a writing group or creative writing course. This way, once or twice a week you’ll be surrounded by other writerly types who’ll feel a vague obligation to read your work out of a sense of solidarity to the group. The other is to publish your early stuff yourself on the web and hope you attract someone’s attention enough to comment on your work, if not always in a positive way then at least in a constructive manner.

Personally, I chose the second option and for a number of reasons. The problem with a writing group or class is that you’re in a room with someone staring at you with hope in their eyes, silently imploring you to say something nice about the dull and boring piece of dreck they subjected you to after the last workshop/class and now you have to come up with something to say about it that won’t offend them or hurt their feelings. If I’m doing this with them, then of course they’re doing it with me as well. This atmosphere isn’t one that I find conducive to good writing, more towards identikit writing of the Richard and Judy Book Club variety. Unless the group is set up specifically for it, then writers of SF&F and horror will be made to feel like they don’t belong. Not consciously perhaps, but it will happen. That’s a separate issue however and not the point I’m making here.

This isn’t to say that writing for a blog isn’t without it’s problems. One of the fundamental drawbacks of writing stuff for a venue whereby people aren’t obliged to give feedback on anything they’ve read is that very often feedback won’t be given. You can be left feeling that you’re shouting into a void and no-one cares about what you’re doing. So far I’ve been unable to get my wife, my parents, my sister or any of my closest real world friends to look at the blog. I try not think about what this implies…

Poor old pitiful me, boo-hoo-hoo. You know what? Why should they care? This is my hobby I’m indulging while I hope to get good enough to turn it into a job one day, not theirs. I’m sure the majority of wannabe writers find themselves in a similar situation with their blogs and manuscripts. This is the normal procedure. If your favourite writer won’t give you the time of day as regards you begging for their help, get over it, get over yourself and keep writing stuff. Hopefully one day you’ll submit something and get published professionally, but until that day keep your neuroses and desperate need for validation within acceptable boundaries.

N.B. It occurs to me now that my blog is remarkably similar to John Scalzi’s in theme and layout. While imitation (even done unconsciously) may be a form flattery, a redesign may well be forthcoming. The last thing I want to be doing is aping what someone else is already doing very well.

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3 responses to “On the matter of asking favours from the professionals

  1. One thing John doesn’t mention is the potential legal implications of the established author reading unpublished work. Although I understand ideas themselves cannot be copyrighted, Stephen King always quotes this as the reason for not reading other people’s unpublished works – a piece of advice he passed directly on to Meg Gardiner.

  2. I think that’s probably because so few people give credence to the notion of idea theft. Speaking from a standpoint of having no legal training at all, I think that an idea is pretty hard to “steal”, seeing as how different authors can write essentially the same story yet produce very different results.

    MacGuffins and milieus can definitely be stolen, but an “idea” is far too nebulous to own. Jonh himself even chuckles at the notion at the end of this post. http://tinyurl.com/musnpf

  3. Ideas (from the perspective of writing) cannot really be stolen, and as the old adage goes, there are no new ideas anyway. However, SK says, “Any writer who has deep pockets has been sued for plagiarism from time-to-time-that goes for J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, really everyone. For everyone who publishes best-selling fiction, somebody wants to think, ‘Oh, he got that idea from me’ and so it’s just much easier and much safer to say I never read that book at all.”

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