Why I can’t read your stories…
One of the cool things about the Internet is that I get to hear from a lot of folks—here in comments, on Facebook, and on Twitter. If you’re on either of those services, feel free to add me as a friend and/or follow me. (On Twitter I tend to post a bunch of links to cool stuff that I don’t post here.)
One of the down-sides is that I get asked by a lot of very well-meaning and hopeful folks to read their work. There are several reasons I can’t, and I thought I’d share them here:
First off, my lawyer has told me I can’t. (She is my sister and will kick my ass if I do.) The problem with reading any material that is not under contract is that it leaves me open to lawsuits for plagiarism. I know you would never sue me, but I have to assume that the second I read your story, you’ll get hit by a bus, and your literary estate will fall into the control of your evil cousin who hates me because I killed a character he loved. He reads your story, then reads something in a story of mine that he finds vaguely similar, and suddenly lawyers get involved in things. Not a pretty picture.
You might think such things don’t happen, but they do. When I was writing BattleTech novels for FASA, they received a letter from someone who asked them to ask me to stop using his ideas. He’d been reading the novels I’d been writing, and had written his own BattleTech novel, then a new one of my novels came out that hit all the points in his novel. (Of course, he’d written his book after picking up clues from my novels—clues that I’d layered in so I could write the book that rolled over his, but he missed that point.)
Second, I am absolutely paranoid about accidentally borrowing material from other authors. One of the reasons I am a good editor is that it’s pretty easy for me to read something, pick the style up, and match it when editing. That’s part of what has made me so successful doing tie-in books. That same skill means I can pick things up when I don’t want to.
If I read your story, and see a good idea there, or something in your story sparks another idea, I really can’t bring myself to use that idea. As I noted yesterday, ideas keep coming, and I want the freedom to use anything that trips through my neurons. Reading unsolicited work means I don’t have that freedom.
Third, I am not going to be the one buying your work. There’s not an editor in the world who will buy your work because I told you it was good. Heck, there are some editors who would refuse to buy it for exactly that reason. 🙂 My opinion is really immaterial because my tastes may not match up at all with the taste of editors buying work out there.
A few folks reading these words might think, “He just doesn’t want to help folks who will be his competition in the future.” If that was true, I wouldn’t have written and published The Secrets for the past six years. I wouldn’t offer products like The Rules of Writing or 21 Days to a Novel. Those two documents alone will tell you more about your work than I ever would in critiquing it. If I was really worried about competition coming up, I wouldn’t teach classes and I’d not do any podcasts.
Fact is, I’m not worried about competition. I love seeing new writers coming up and getting to read those novels and stories. I am still a fan of science fiction and fantasy and detective stories, and finding new work is always a lot of fun. One of the joys of doing the Dragonpage Cover to Cover podcast is getting to see all the new books coming in.
I recognize, for a lot of folks (and proud parents who urge me to read their childrens’ work), it’s a matter of encouragement. A kind word might inspire. It might, but if a writer is going to succeed, that writer has to develop that inner sense of worth. I might say I like a story, but when five editors in a row reject it, my encouragement isn’t going to amount to a hill of beans. As the very wise writer Manly Wade Wellman once said, “You’re the only one who believes you can write, and if you quit, you just make the opinion unanimous.”
Tell yourself you can do it. Read extensively, take classes, avail yourself of resources like The Secrets, and keep writing. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Outliers, he notes that world-class practitioners of any skill have a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice under their belts. Start logging those hours now, and I will read your work—when I snag it from the shelves where it’s standing cover to cover with my own.