Monday, February 25, 2008

Unsolicited Advice… For Aspiring Authors Seeking Advice

(And writers dealing with them.)

Sooner or later, it begins. Along with the messages telling me how to enlarge my penis and buy cheap Canadian prescription drugs (which isn’t a problem, me being Canadian and living here and all), the irritating spam from authors who for some reason just assume I want to be on everyone’s mailers and the letters from Nigeria, you start to receive the letters from aspiring authors.

It didn’t start for me when I got a book deal. It started before that. And the more profile you have, the more e-mails you get from people, asking you to critique their work, discuss your publisher, refer them to your agent.

I know from having a distant relative in the music business that they can’t even touch someone’s stuff without it going through proper channels. Disputes over rights and accusations of theft are very serious. As a songwriter and an artist you have to protect yourself.

Both authors and aspiring writers need to protect themselves as well. We’re breeding a culture of people who seek instant validation through blogs by posting excerpts of their works in progress or whole short stories. It feels great when comment after comment expresses enthusiasm…

But it isn’t the same as being published and it also isn’t money in the bank. And often, it doesn’t translate into either. For Spinetingler, I won’t take general submissions of work that’s appeared elsewhere online. Why should I pay for a story people can read elsewhere for free?

People hold up the exceptions to the rule to justify it, but there are an awful lot of risks. For example, did you know I write my average first draft in six to eight weeks? And I already have an agent, and a publisher. My second book coming out this year was signed off on just on the basis of seeing the first draft.

If I was an unscrupulous person, I could steal an idea, write my own version of the story and have it sold in a matter of weeks.

Now, I’m far more interested in my own ideas and I have more than enough of them to keep me busy for years. But if you send an e-mail to someone you don’t know, with some of your work attached and ask for feedback there are several things you should consider:

1. Not everyone is honest. You just left yourself wide open to having an idea stolen.
2. It’s extremely presumptuous. You’re asking someone to take a lot of time to help you out when they don’t even know you. At least do them the courtesy of e-mailing first and asking them if they’ll look at your work.
3. You might not get good advice if you do get advice. (Just consider how many talented authors blurb awful books. Taste is subjective…)

There are ways to get critiques. They’re often auctioned off by charities and sometimes authors give critiques away as prizes.

And yes, sometimes there are authors/editors who offer a critique-for-fee service. Personally, this is the avenue I recommend.

Why? Because a transaction that involves money and getting a receipt proves this person has received this work, for one thing. You can send off your manuscript to any writer who might then snag a clever hook from it and sell it as their own and if you try to claim theft you won’t have a leg to stand on. How do you prove they received it, for one thing? Or that they read it? Besides, there’s no copyright on an idea or a plot line. Change the characters, setting and resolution and all you’ve got is broken dreams.

While I’d like to believe most authors would have the integrity not to steal, there have been enough examples of plagiarism in recent years to prove it happens.

The other thing about paying for a critique is that you can expect a certain level of feedback and have the right to expect it.

I will not critique work for someone I don’t know. I have critiquing partners. I have readers I turn to for input for my own work. I’m obligated to respond to my critiquing partners first, above anyone else.

And honestly, I just don’t have the time to do critiques for people for free.

Authors, you also need to protect yourself. Many authors have a clear statement with the contact information on their website, stating not to send manuscripts as they won’t be read.

While I understand the frustration involved in learning the business, and have tried to help many people who’ve asked me questions (not critiquing, but general information stuff) it’s time-consuming. In the past I’ve found some of those people also solicited information from dozens of others, so there’s a sense your advice might not even be read. And you’ve just taken 20 minutes out of your family time, your writing time, your reading time or your marketing time… to quite possibly be ignored.

It’s flattering when people ask your advice. It suggests they think you might know something about the business, have connections, or have an opinion worth listening to. But like all things (as much as there are great, sincere aspiring authors out there who would genuinely benefit and be very appreciative) there are also vultures out there who prey on the fact that they’re stroking your ego and inflating your sense of importance. They’ll take advantage of the fact that many people genuinely do want to be helpful.

So, when it’s announced you’ve signed with an agent, or have had some short stories published or have a book deal, you’ll probably get some of these letters. And you’ll have to decide if you’re going to ignore them (hey, there’s a chance the e-mail was lost in cyberspace, right?) or politely decline or give the person some help.

Whatever you do, there are risks to you as an author as well. People might hate me and write trash reviews on amazon… of course, I send out enough rejection letters via Spinetingler every year that I’ve got my quota for that covered. But you can’t be held hostage to unreasonable expectations and demands on your time – heavens, with what’s expected of me as an author (and a partner and editor) already I just don’t have hours left in the day for much else. Bottom line: my family comes first, then my own writing.


Chris said...

Gee, I wonder where THIS post came from?

In all seriousness, it's something you really don't think about until it happens. And for every normal, polite, decent person out there interested in connecting to talk shop or whatever, it seems like there are a few dozen whack-jobs looking to learn the secret handshake. Or, failing that, looking to trash perfectly decent folks for no reason whatsoever (just ask Lyman...)

Pepper Smith said...

Mind if I link to this post?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Pepper, sure, link. I don't mind.

Chris, you know, I actually posted some of this elsewhere on cyberspace, on a forum, after someone created a book cover and trailer for their yet-unfinished and unsold work in progress. When you're putting your twist or hook out there in advert form for all the world to see, anyone could stroll by and latch on to it, and maybe they write faster, maybe they have an agent - you just don't know.

Then, in light of recent events, I found myself wondering if I shouldn't have something stated on my site. It may be a bit knee-jerk, but at least if you've said you won't look at stuff you've got an ace in the hole if anyone ever accuses you of theft.

Perhaps we should get them to join hands and repeat the chant: There is no secret handshake. There is no secret handshake...

James Goodman-Horror Writer said...

lol, yeah these sorts of emails have a way of sneaking up on you don't they?

When I had my first couple of "can you tell me what I can do better to get published" kind of emails, I was flattered... all the way up until the time one of them lashed out at me for telling them what I thought might make their story better. Now, I just give a solid, "sorry, I can't help you" repsonse to the few who send things my way.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Yeah, it soon becomes a thankless task. Unfortunately, like all things, the rotten few make it impossible for the ones who'd actually really benefit and appreciate it.

angie said...

Why anyone would send unsolicited work to an author ('cause god knows, they've got nothing else to do)? It's mind boggling.

*boggle, boggle, boggle*

I mean, wtf? Desperate much? Mebbe a little insecure? Uninformed, or just not too bright? Dunno. Don't get it