I’ve become one part therapist, two parts bartender, and one part strategist. Loyal Slushpile.net readers email me to ask about getting this or that author to assist in their quest for publication. “All he has to do is give my manuscript to his editor!” one exasperated emailer exclaimed. “He’s got an agent, a book deal, and an editor yet he acts like he doesn’t know a soul in the publishing industry that can help me. I’m just asking for an introduction,” another wracked writer wrote. [Sorry, couldn’t stop the silly repetition in those sentences, it’ll spill out of my system soon.]
Other emailers plot for author assistance with the fervor of a fifteen-year-old boy scheming about Jenny the cheerleader and that enticingly hidden part of the bleachers during the Homecoming Dance. Invariably, they’re almost always disappointed when the author fails to provide any useful connections.
I haven’t spoken to any authors about this but I think there are a variety of reasons why they won’t help you. To begin to ascertain the reason that author won’t help, first you need to examine yourself.
Question #1: Does Your Writing Suck?
I’m quite sure that none of the loyal Slushpile.net readers fall into this category. Of course not. But for the sake of discussion, it’s a question that must be asked. Even with my meager sphere of cyberspace influence, I receive a shocking number of requests from would-be authors. It’s amazing how many of these pleas are littered with typos, cliches, tense shifts, and enough passive voice to fill support group. While I have no doubt these people are hard-working, determined, and passionate about their goals, the quality of work just isn’t there. At least not yet. They might very well turn out to be the next William Faulkner, but right now they seem incapable of running spell check on their work.
So, be brutally honest with yourself. Evaluate your work. Seek out the most sophisticated, tasteful reader you know who doesn’t share your last name. Tell them to pretend to be Simon Cowell and review your work. Join writing groups. Take workshops. Whatever you need to do, try to guage the quality of your writing. If authors aren’t willing to help, it’s entirely possible that your work just isn’t good enough.
If you write an outlandish story that ends with the alarm buzzing and your hero waking up, then your writing might suck.
If the grammar in your manuscript leads readers to believe English is your fourth language, then it’s a pretty good indicator your writing sucks.
If you stole your plot from a Lifetime television movie and Tori Spelling can play the lead, then it’s just possible that your writing might suck.
If your novel’s narrator is a tabby cat named Jefferson who sits in the window all day and tries to figure out how to make popcorn before his owner comes home, then chances are quite good that your writing sucks.
If you are positively certain that your writing doesn’t suck, then proceed to the next question.
Question #2: Are You Rushing Things?
I can’t tell you how many times I hear this speech, always spewed like projectile vomit, with the speaker barely pausing for breath before pouring out even more craziness: “I met Mr. Famous Author at a cocktail party, and we talked for a whole ten minutes, and I gave him the elevator pitch for my novel, which he said sounds interesting, and I asked him if I could send it to him and he said he was leaving the country, bound for the Amazon, and that he wouldn’t have Internet access, so I asked if I could maybe send it to him via Red Cross cargo planes carrying medical supplies, and he said that he was planning on partaking in indigenous rituals that involved drinking native halluciogenic potions that would render him incapable of reading my manuscript, but I told him he’d love it, and then I asked if he could give me his agent’s home address, but he said he preferred the tools of a simpler age and didn’t carry a PDA or phone or laptop and so he didn’t have the agent’s mailing address on hand, so then I asked about his editor, I mean, I can look up the publishing company’s mailing address online, so Mr. Famous Author didn’t have to give me an address, just a name, and he said his editor recently passed away and he did not have a new one just yet. So after all that, he refused to help me! What’s up with that? He’s just worried that I’ll take readers away from him.”
Clearly, this person is simply rushing things with that author. If I meet you at a bar and within ten minutes, I ask you to recommend me to your boss, are you gonna do it? Sure, I may be a nice guy, but how are you going to be able to judge my personality and skills in a brief conversation over absinthe and Little Debbie snack cakes?
Just because an author was nice to you at a book signing does not mean she has enough information to serve as a reference for you. You’re rushing things if you think otherwise.
If neither of the above questions pertain to you, then it’s time to turn our attention to a few major species of writers.
Authors are individual people who make their living in a certain profession. There are nice, generous, kind authors and then there are assholes. This range of personalities isn’t any different than dentists, mechanics, reggae singers, serial killers, system testers, insurance salesmen, or despots. So although we’ll need to speak in some generalities for this post, in reality, it’s almost impossible to assign behavioral logic to an entire group. It’s like those dating books. Sure, every single encounter is different, but that multiplicity won’t generate a saleable book. So they come up with a snappy slogan like “he’s just not that into you” and use it to cover an entire gender’s behavior. We’ll have to do the same thing for this discussion.
Second, like people in any other profession, they have good and bad days. You might be excited to meet Mr. Big Time Horror Writer at the Topeka Werewolf Writers Association annual convention but he might suffering from an unbearable tooth ache. On any other day, he might love your novel pitch, but on that day, he just wants to get back to his hotel room and the minibar.
Accepting those limitations on our conversation, I think you’ll find resistant authors broken down into four categories.
This author feels like he gained his position through sheer force of will and determination. He forgets about that editor who overlooked a typo-laden query letter and first published his work, he blocks out that time an indulgent agent loaned him some money to get his bunions removed, and he doesn’t mention his aunt’s bridge partner’s son who got him on the masthead of a prestigous magazine.
Your grandfather had to walk three miles uphill to get to school, but The Hazer had to scratch out his stories with charcoal and flint on the back of trashed license plates. He was forced to hand-deliver his stories in a blizzard, his editor whipped him with a cat o’ nine tails until he learned about misplaced modifiers, and he manually set the type for his book himself. By God, he didn’t need computers, spell-checkers, websites, publicists, connections, or Amazon-dot-fucking-com to write produce classic literature and build a writing career!
Fully absorbed in his own mythology, he doesn’t think anyone ever helped him so he ain’t gonna help you.
This author might be perfectly willing to help you, she just is unaware that any human being might need it. She was born discovered. Her style is so individual, so peculiar, so unworldly that the literary angels sing when she puts pen to paper. She tosses off gorgeous sentences in the amount of time it takes you to shout at Howie on the TV if there’s a deal or no deal and if she even thinks of a story while standing in the shower, there is an acceptance letter from The New Yorker in her mailbox the next day.
The Savant might help you, if she only realized that mere mortals need help. And even then, she might be hard pressed to explain a query letter or a pre-empt deal because she simply isn’t troubled by the filthy mechanics of the publishing industry.
The Household Name
You can list these folks on two hands. You know who they are. The Household Name might want to help you but the fact is that he is innundated with requests all day long. The mailman inserts his manuscript in between the May issue of Sports Illustrated and the Land’s End catalog. The valet leaves his short story underneath the Porsche’s front seat. And the interior decorator wallpapers the powder room with their poetry. The Household Name can’t help you because he’s too busy defending himself from the dozens of freaks pestering him throughout the day.
Think of getting help from The Household Name in the same way you dream of winning the lottery. With as much as they have on their plate, the odds are about the same.
While the previous species of authors have been described in a tongue-in-cheek manner, The Survivor is probably the most realistic and most common. The unfortunate reality is that most authors in this country don’t make a great deal of money. Even writers with several books to their name work in bars, teach classes, edit newspapers, drive taxis, and toil at any other profession that pays the bills.
They also don’t have long-term, multi-book publishing deals. The Household Name might be locked in for another three or four books, but The Survivor usually gets a one-and-done deal. Maybe two books, if they’re lucky. But that’s it.
Have you ever worked at a company when people start getting those dreaded calls to visit HR? Or, maybe you’ve lived through a situation like the one in Maxx Barry’s great corporate novel Company where people discover they’ve been laid off when their email bounces. If you’ve experienced these situations then you know the classic layoff survival technique: don’t attract any attention. Keep your head down, don’t ask for a raise, don’t file outrageous expense reports, don’t bug your boss, don’t ask for a vacation, just do nothing. Stay quiet, daub some lamb’s blood on your bulletin board, and hope the layoff grim reaper passes over your cubicle.
I believe many authors operate under a similar circumstance of fear. The last thing they want to do is attract undue attention. And if we think a bit more about their circumstances, it’s easy to understand the authorial reticence.
Andy Author might have been lucky enough to sign a two-book deal and, to you and me, it seems like he’s got it made. We admire him and envy his publishing situation. But the truth is that Andy Author’s first book didn’t earn back its advance and his editor resigned six months ago. The new editor hates Andy’s work and doesn’t bother to return any phone calls. Andy probably looses sleep each night worrying about being cut loose, or having a book half-heartedly published with no support.
Or, Wally Writer might be working on a manuscript for a prestigious publishing house. We think he’s in a perfect position to help, afterall, he’s talking to powerful editors every day. All he has to do is make a phone call and talk about us. Simple enough. But the truth of the matter is that Wally Writer missed the deadline for his manuscript. His mother has been ill, the kids need braces, he had to spend all of his advance, and he’s sinking into a deeper and deeper pit of despair over the state of his writing. If Wally calls his editor and says “hey, there’s this great new writer named Scott, you should check him out,” the editor is just as likely to respond, “that’s great Wally, but why don’t you concentrate on your own fucking career and finish that manuscript instead of scouting new talent?”
The fact of the matter is that most writers possess far, far less publishing influence then we, the great aspiring masses, think they have. And badgering them for help is only effective in creating an uncomfortable conversation.
Even if the author is comfortable and solid enough in their own career to be able to help you, the fact remains that they have their own lives to lead. They have their own books to write, their own PTA meetings to attend, and their own cars that need new mufflers. Nowhere is it written that authors must help aspiring authors. It’s not part of the deal.
What You Can Do
On Wednesday, I’ll post some thoughts about finding mentors and tracking down authors who will help you. I’ve been lucky in my own writing life to encounter generous, encouraging, and active mentors, so it can be done.
Although today’s post was meant to be somewhat humorous, there are some sincere lessons to be learned in approaching authors. I’ll share those with you on Wednesday. In the meantime, don’t slide your manuscript under any bathroom stalls just because Mr. Bestseller happens to be there.