Monday, August 20, 2007

Why Pros Won't Read Your Stuff

One common complaint from beginning writers is that they can't get professional writers to read their work for comment and criticism.

In general, they’re absolutely right. Most pros have a horror of reading stuff by amateurs and will only do it under special circumstances. This frustrates and angers a lot of beginning writers who don't understand why pros act this way.

Speaking as a professional, I'll tell you, first, that there are some very good reasons why we act this way; second, it’s not going to change any time soon; and third, getting a pro to read and critique your stuff isn't nearly as important as a lot of beginning writers think.

The pros’ attitude is the result of a combination of bad experiences on the part of the writers and a whole series of common misunderstandings on the part of the would-be authors. Taken together they mean that most writers have scars from previous experiences and damn few of them are willing to undertake the project again.

For a professional writer, reading an unpublished writer's work is usually an exercise in frustration. Most pros did it a few times when they were young and innocent and at least one of the resulting experiences was so bad they never want to do it again.

Remember pros usually don’t even read each other's work in progress, except under special circumstances. Most writers have a horror of leaving their fight in the gym and don't want to expose their work to others before its time. It’s also true that for almost every writer, much of the goodness in the work comes from the final stage of reworking, rewriting and polishing. Until that’s done it's very hard to judge a piece of fiction. And of course once that’s done it’s ready to be submitted.

You will occasionally find a published author who is a member of a writers group that reads and critiques each others work. (The other kind of writers’ group, such as the Full Moon Club, of which I am a member, meets for a combination group therapy and bull session. This is much more common among professionals.) Usually these are pros who made their first sales while members of the group and remain with it out of friendship, loyalty and because they feel they benefit from that particular group. However this isn't exactly common and such professionals are usually just as reluctant to read “outsiders” work as any other author.

Pros also have a much more realistic appreciation what you can get from having others read your work -- which is pity damn little, unless it’s being read by an editor, publisher or your agent.

There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes if a pro is stuck, he or she will share part of a work with a trusted colleague to help decide where the piece went wrong. I have a select group of friends who, if bribed with pizza and beer, will review my novels before I send them off to my publisher. However this is for the limited purpose of finding continuity problems and similar contradictions. They all know better than to mess with the prose.

There are also times and places when a pro will read an amateur’s work. These are usually situations with very well-defined boundaries. For example, some authors will agree to critique one or more manuscripts as part of being a guest of a science fiction convention. Others will teach courses in fiction writing that involve reading and critiquing students’ work.

However even those exceptions are limited and can be unpleasant. When I taught science fiction writing at the local junior college I would have the occasional student who simply wanted me to read what they had already written -- typically a novel -- and critique it. They weren't interested in the class work, or the exercises, or the lectures, they wanted me to plow into their masterpiece. This is at best insulting and usually schizophrenic. The student is saying, in effect, that he or she doesn't need the material you as a teacher have worked to put together, but they want your opinion of what they have written.

It is also a sad fact is that a lot of the people who ask authors to read their work don’t want a critique at all. As Sharyn McCrumb put it in her send-up of science fiction conventions Bimbos of the Death Sun, what they want is effusive praise and the name of your agent. The members of this group are particularly likely to be insulted if you give them an honest opinion of their work.

Critiquing a non-professional’s work is as dicey as criticizing a mother's baby. Even more than mothers, writers are sensitive about their productions and easily offended. Of course pros are sensitive about their work as well. The difference is that part of becoming a professional writer is learning to deal with criticism. Beginners usually haven't developed those calluses on their egos yet and they get obviously and often vocally offended.

Critiquing fiction is also not easy. In fact, the better the pro is, the harder it is. Analyzing a piece of fiction is laborious work. It's not the same as reading it for pleasure and if you're going to do an honest job of the critique, it requires careful, word-by-word analysis of the piece. Please note that my reading parties, with their very limited goals, typically last between 10 and 12 hours for a complete novel and most of that time is spent hunched over copies of the manuscripts, red pencils in one hand and beer or pizza in the other.

The second-worst problem is that in general, amateurs have completely unrealistic expectations from the professional reading their work. Most of them think the pro can tell them how to fix whatever is wrong with their work.

In fact neither the pro, nor anyone else, can do any such thing. The most a perceptive professional can tell you is what is wrong with the piece in general terms. It's up to the writer to figure out how to fix it.

Now if I wanted to go through someone else’s work line by line, I could tell them precisely how to write a second-rate Rick Cook novel. But publishers don't want second-rate Rick Cook novels, even from Rick Cook. (Trust me on this one!)

What I can’t tell someone is how to make the work both publishable and authentically theirs. That requires practice and experience on the part of the author and no amount of critiquing can provide that.

But the worst problem is that amateurs want to argue with you. This is utterly futile, wearing for the pro and demonstrates conclusively that the wanna-be writer has utterly missed the point of the exercise.

First, it’s rude. Look, if you ask someone for advice, the appropriate thing to do is listen politely, thank the adviser for his or her time and then do what you think is best. Arguing with someone not only gets you nowhere it irritates the person who did you the favor of giving you the advice you asked for.

It may be appropriate to ask the adviser's reasoning for the advice he or she gives, but that’s a different thing from arguing about it.

Second, and much more importantly, the desire to argue also attaches vastly too much importance to the person who is critiquing the work. The hard fact is that is doesn't matter what the pro thinks. The pro isn't going to be buying it. In this business there are only three opinions that count: The writer’s, the publisher's, and, ultimately, the readers’. What another writer thinks of your work doesn't amount to the proverbial hill of beans.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Also once heard of problem of the wanna-be writer later saying 'you stole my idea from x years ago when you read my thinge'...
a nonny mouse :-)