Be careful helping aspiring writers

Why one writer refuses to read unpublished manuscripts – and why you may consider doing the same.

Aspiring writers are everywhere. That small fact is one of many things I’ve learned since announcing my first book deal. Every distant relative and former coworker seems to know someone who wants to write a book, and they have no problem sending them directly to you.

I’m all too happy to help out aspiring writers. It seems like only yesterday I was there myself. However, there’s one question those writers ask that always makes me want to change my name and leave the country:

“Will you read my book?”

The request always puts me in the uncomfortable position of saying, “No,” which almost inevitably makes the aspiring author decide I’m a horrible person. But for the record, there are a few good reasons I refuse to read unpublished manuscripts.

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No good deed goes unpunished.

Few aspiring authors want a truly honest critique, especially if that critique advises them to toss their work in progress into the recycle bin and find another creative outlet. That puts the reader in the unenviable position of trying to find nice things to say even when a manuscript is completely unsalvageable. If we dare tell the truth, we run the risk of being labeled a jerk, which can be awkward if we have to face that aspiring writer in the future. If we share mutual friends who recommend we help this aspiring writer, we risk harming that friendship by saying something the writer finds hurtful.

I recommend aspiring authors seek out a critique group, where fellow unpublished writers can look at each other’s work and provide honest feedback. Peer groups can grow together, offering constructive criticism that helps to strengthen each other’s writing. I usually direct aspiring authors to one of the many niche organizations that exist for writers, such as Romance Writers of America or the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Those resources can help writers find the exact critique group they need. Locally, writers can also find critique groups through Meetup.com.

Time is money.

Life would be perfect if I had hours each day to read for fun. In truth, most of the books I read are within my own genre. I need to stay up-to-date on the books being published in children’s fiction in order to be able to come up with books my publisher will buy. That’s my first priority. When I read for fun, usually it’s in audiobook format, and I’m almost exclusively listening to books written by those who are much more accomplished than I am.

That’s not to say I don’t read books outside of those two areas. I have a stack of books written by people within my own peer network. These are authors who support me in return. I read their books, post reviews, and spread the word on social media. Just as I sought the support of a critique group early in my career, I seek the support of peers at this stage. Most of today’s unpublished authors will do the same once they’re on contract with a publisher. Before I was published, I had no idea how much effort went into promoting a children’s book, from bookstore events to blogging to school visits. Over time, you begin to evaluate everything you do for its ROI (return on investment).

They don’t return the favor.

Once I was published, the requests came rolling in. High school friends who wanted to meet to pick my brain. Former coworkers who had distant cousins who wanted advice. Social media strangers who wanted me to recommend them to my agent. Each time, it was simply assumed I’d help, and because I always feel guilty when I’m not “polite,” I agreed. I promptly found these requests eating into my time with absolutely zero return. If I was lucky, I’d get a passing “thanks,” but not a single person who asked for help bought a copy of one of my books. They didn’t even recommend them to their friends.

The breaking point was when a friend of a friend sent over a PDF of his manuscript for me to read. I spent hours reading it and giving helpful feedback. A couple of weeks later, he posted a picture of himself with his daughter who just happened to fit within the age range of my book’s readership. Did he buy a copy for her? No. Did he recommend my book to friends who had daughters that age? No. Did he send the corrected PDF of his book to me to ask me to go over it one more time? Absolutely. And that was the very moment I stopped responding to requests to read unpublished manuscripts.

I can’t afford an attorney.

The biggest reason we should say “no” to these requests comes from best-selling novelists. Early in my career, I heard one of those authors tell a roomful of aspiring novelists that she never reads unpublished manuscripts due to legal concerns. If any element of an unpublished work should later appear in one of her books, she would be at risk for a claim of plagiarism. Just as TV studios return unsolicited scripts unopened, authors should stay away from unpublished work.

I’ve since learned that many successful authors have taken this stance. When requests come in from strangers, we can easily ignore them or provide a professional but polite response. However, when those requests come through social media friends, from people who have a real-world connection to us, it can be exponentially more difficult to say “no.” When that happens, it puts us in an awkward position. I personally plan to take the stance that my attorney has recommended I not read unpublished manuscripts. (I can’t afford to keep an attorney around to advise me, but if I had one, I’m sure that’s the advice I’d get.) At that point, I’ll point them in the direction of a writing group that can help, whether it’s a national organization or a local critique group.

With all of that said, I want to emphasize that mentorship can be a valuable experience for any author, so long as it is done in a solicited and mutually beneficial manner. Many published authors use “official” services like Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars, which connects writers seeking manuscript feedback with published novelists. Along with writing groups, these services can give aspiring authors the mentorship they need – while still protecting the published authors who help.

 

 

Stephanie Faris is the Simon & Schuster author of 25 Roses, 30 Days of No Gossip, and the Piper Morgan series.

 

 

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