Words: 1,200

Music: Bach violin concertos

I was thinking about this recently because of screenwriter Josh Olson’s blog in The Village Voice.  Among Olson’s many pearls of wisdom there is this:

It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.

(By the way, here’s a simple way to find out if you’re a writer. If you disagree with that statement, you’re not a writer. Because, you see, writers are also readers.)

So here’s what I want to know: why do you as an aspiring novelist or short story writer or screenwriter want a pro to read your work? When I was starting out, I went to a con where Shawna McCarthy, then editor of Asimov’s, was a guest of honor, and I had a manila envelope of my deathless prose in my arms. Some of it was written when I was twelve, and most of it was handwritten. My plan was to go up to her, ask her if she would read my stories, and she would take them and give me kind thoughtful encouraging praise.

Thank God I didn’t go through with it. (I did talk to her though, about other stuff. I’m pretty sure she knew what was in that envelope. I wonder if she was worried.)  But what the hell did I want her to read this for? I mean, when my stories were ready, she bought two of them (and no, none of them were the stories in that envelope).

Why do we want pros to read our work? Validation? Look kid, validation is a check made out to you. A foot in the door? Like how? Like the author is going to call his agent and editor and say, hey, check out this stuff, it’s great? You know who stuff like that happens to? Scott Lynch and Diana Gabaldon, and they would have made it without jumping the queue.

The worst reason to ask a pro to look at your work is this: the expectation that someone who has achieved success as a writer has the time to give you, a stranger, a lengthy critique of your work just for the asking. That’s not just ludicrous, it’s rude. And there’s also this particular problem, as Olson points out:

Which brings us to an ugly truth about many aspiring screenwriters: They think that screenwriting doesn’t actually require the ability to write, just the ability to come up with a cool story that would make a cool movie. …Everybody can write, right? And because they believe that, they don’t regard working screenwriters with any kind of real respect. They will hand you a piece of inept writing without a second thought, because you do not have to be a writer to be a screenwriter.

Substitute novelist and it’s the same thing. There are an appalling number of people who think that you don’t have to learn craft to be a good writer.

So there are at least two people who are reading this and going, uh oh. Because they are people who I have specifically said, send me your work. But here’s the difference. I’ve taken an interest for a variety of reasons, all that have to do with my time, my scheduling, and my feeling that I have something useful to say to these people. If you read Olson’s blog, you see he also has a stack of scripts from people in the same category. And it’s not just a one-way street. I also exchange novels and short stories with other experienced writers and give and get feedback.

So if you can’t get any love from curmudgeonly writers, editors, and agents, all of whom have nothing better to do than read your work so how dare they turn you down, how do you get feedback? Join a writers group. Trade novels with other aspiring novelists. Read lots please, so that you recognize good writing and you aspire to it. Attend writers workshops. I taught at two this summer. Participants got some good feedback out of it from all the teachers. Some workshops you pay for and some are free, but the teachers generally don’t get paid. We do it as a way to pay it forward (so there, we’re not all bad).

But don’t just ask a writer to read your novel. You’ll get much farther faster if you treat your craft as a craft, hone it, aspire to writing as best you can, and don’t think you can take shortcuts.


Dave Freer · September 25, 2009 at 4:07 am

:-)Over the years I have had several hundred people ask me to read their work. 98% wanted me to say ‘wonderful’ and pat the on the back and send them to my agent/editor/straight to collect the awards and 2 million dollars. The other two percent wanted to learn. So now I ask before I invest time. I still do invest a lot of time on the 2%. My best yet has come from a bloke who wrote to me and started his letter with “I’ve never read any of your books because I don’t like that kind of thing. But I need you to help me get published.” closely followed by the guy who said “I am much better than you are. Give my manuscript to your publisher!” (yes, both genuine. I have treasured those e-mails). And the belly dancer. I leave that e-mail to your imagination.

Patrice Sarath · September 25, 2009 at 8:10 am

I would print out and frame those emails. They are the best. When I think of the years I have put in and I’m still putting in to learn the craft and to improve, it really irks me that people think all they have to do is shove their work — or even better, their half-baked ideas — in front of a pro to make it.

I have a good imagination but I think the belly dancer email is best left alone.

Dave Freer · September 25, 2009 at 8:50 am

LoL – the belly-dancer was perfectly innocent of the channels our minds would flow to. Just a very very long, rambling and incoherent diatribe based on her assumptions of transferred excellence (odd in the context, but quite widespread really, especially among my fellow scientists, that being good in one field automatically translates into being good in another unrelated one.). This woman was a great belly-dancer (or so she said) and therefore how dare I think her prose less-than-scintillating. And what would _I_ know anyway? The latter part is true though. I am a mediocre to lousy judge of what does well/ gets bought. A couple of my mentees DO write far better than I do, IMO and have just met blank walls so far It’s a tough field.

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