Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Tuesday Night at the Question Emporium

I'm always hearing other writers advise not reading unpublished manuscripts for legal reasons. I always just assumed published writers gave out that excuse to avoid a billion wannabes from inundating them with unpublishable dreck. Is there any truth behind the advice?

I tell my clients they are forbidden upon pain of death to read unpublished, un-contracted, un-agented unknown work. If necessary I type out a little card they can carry in their wallet:

My agent Janet Reid at FinePrint Lit
forbids me to read manuscripts.

I'm more afraid of her than I am of you,
so please forgive me for not agreeing to read this.

Then I make them practice saying it out loud. Some of my clients (how this happened I do not know) are very nice, kind, helpful people and the idea of not being kind and helpful requires practice and the very real fear of that bodily harm thing.

There are a couple reasons I do this.

First, the people who step over the boundaries of common courtesy and common sense by thrusting manuscripts at you without asking, or in public places, are just the kind of people who don't understand how publishing works, and don't have all their synapses firing in the right order. In other words, just exactly the kind of person who can become a problem. My clients don't need that.

Second, I've heard directly from authors whom I don't represent that they've had very unfortunate litigation threats from people who believe the author "stole" their idea. My clients don't need that either.

Third, it's always easier to have someone else to blame. My authors don't need to alienate potential readers, no matter how nutso or crazy, by saying "no I don't wanna." Thus I ask them to blame me. I get blamed for everything else anyway, I'm used to it.

Generally I think it's a bad bad bad idea to read feral manuscripts. By feral I mean those not domesticated enough to attend a writing conference, a critique group, a writing contest, or a college class.

So, repeat after me:

My agent told me if I read this,
she'd kill me.

I believe her.

I'm very sorry,
but feel free to take it up with her.
Her email is Janet @


Janet said...

What if the hopeful writer is a personal friend of your author and has an "unferal" manuscript, one that's been critiqued and beta'd and revised and polished?

I would never shove my manuscript at anyone, but I will not be above dropping broad hints within earshot of my published friends, hoping that one of them will volunteer to read the thing. How else could they recommend me to their agent, if they don't know if I can actually write or not?

Julie Layne said...

Does this just pertain to asking published authors? What about asking "experts" in fields related to your fiction to read? Is that considered in good taste or not? For instance, if the story involves a legal action, or has a character with a certain career or experience the author has not personally experienced but wants to write about. Better to just ask questions and do deep research, or okay to ask people to read to vet your story?

On the other end of the spectrum, do published authors basically just stop getting critique from anyone but their agent and editor?

JES said...

Her email is Janet @

Unfortunately, there's no way to test this theory but: The cynic in me just knows that somewhere out there on the Internets, a feral MS's proprietor is even now copying-and-pasting that address into his email contacts list. Bet around ten of those emails have already bounced. :)

(I heart "feral manuscripts" btw.)

beth said...

A question similar to Janets:

If you are part of a critique group, and one member gets published, should that member join a different crit group, one without un-pub'd people?

Haste yee back ;-) said...

I don't have feral scripts, but I've some "free range" stuff!

Haste yee back ;-)

DK said...

This is good to know; thanks Janet.

And Beth, I don't want to speak for Janet, but I cannot imagine she's talking about your critique group. She said "unknown" work; presumably you know the members of your critique group well enough to know they won't cause trouble or sue you for stealing their idea. Also, people in a critique group tend to know at least a little about how publishing works -- that's how they knew it might be a good idea to join a critique group, right?

Tarot By Arwen said...

I wonder if it would be a charitable thing to form a rescue group to trap and spay/neuter these feral manuscripts.

Maybe if we can stop them from reproducing....

Kelly McClymer said...

First -- I love your blog. You have very sensible advice.

But...(isn't there always a but?)...

As a published writer, I am not afraid of unpublished writers' work. I will read it (in fact, I am paid to read it in my teaching job -- and a small percentage of it isn't even feral yet, more like scum-sucking biological ooze). I am also perfectly capable of refusing to read it without blaming anyone else. It used to puzzle me why anyone would claim their agent/editor forbid them to read unpublished work. And then I realized that many people have trouble owning the word, "No."

I read unpublished work for several reasons: 1 - to pay it forward for those many generous souls who helped me along the way; 2 - because I learn about my own strengths and weaknesses from analyzing other people's nascent or raw work; 3 - because I enjoy it.

Of course, over the years I've had to learn to recognize when to say no (deadlines, people who are too sensitive to or not ready for critique, not a subject I'm interested in, etc.). It literally never occurred to me to use my agent as an excuse, because I just use the truth -- I'm too busy, wary or inexpert. I was raised not to blame anyone but me for my decisions (not that I'm perfect at that, as my husband and children will readily testify).

I do find it helps to follow up a no with a long list of books and websites that cover writing. (Yours, of course, being one of those :-)


Kristin Laughtin said...

Janet got to my question first. A few friends and I have an informal critique group, and two of us have an eye on publication. I know a few of these people aren't interested in conferences or contests as much, but if I got published, you can bet I'd help them out if they asked me, and I expect they would do the same for me. But since this is someone I trust is serious, I guess the manuscript doesn't count as "feral".

It's only a bit frustrating when every agent has a different perspective on this--some encourage you to throw your manuscript at any published author who might look at it, even if you're complete strangers, but that always seemed nonsense to me for the reasons you stated. (And I, on the other hand, always seem to think that if the MS is good enough, it shouldn't matter how many people have looked at it before it gets to an agent. The problem is making sure it's good enough, but hey, if you're one of the few who can write a masterpiece without any outside input, that shouldn't be held against you. /tangential rant)

Steve Stubbs said...

Wow, I wish I had read your post earlier. Some complete stranger sent me a disk all the way from South Africa. If I had read your post I would have known not to read it.

Of course I did not read it anyway, but henceforth I will be forearmed and not merely apathetic. (Apathetic means I am totally constipated on the subject of reading unwanted unpublished books sent uninvited by unknown strangers to whom I am unindebted. Totally constipated means I don't give a s**t.)

I will also know on whom to displace the blame if it happens again. I am glad you don't mind, especially since I am not your client (although I would like to be.)

Great blog. I learn more from you than almost anyone else. Keep writing.

Jolie said...

In response to Kelly McClymer's comment ...

I feel the same way about how it's important to learn to say no, and about the importance of honesty and owning your opinions/decisions, but I don't think it would violate any of those principles to tell an unpubbed author that you're not reading their manuscript because your agent said not to. Caution against future plagiarism accusations is a perfectly legitimate, honest reason to turn someone down. I wouldn't say "my agent says it's a no-no" unless my agent had actually said it's a no-no, but I would still feel justified in saying, "I'm sorry, I don't read unpubbed manucripts for liability reasons."

Now, that would be what I'd tell strangers/casual acquaintances, because I wouldn't consider it too risky to read a friend's unpublished work. And if it DID become a problem, well ... I'd solve it. I share Kelly's attitude when it comes to friends. If I have their phone number or see them every day at the coffee shop, I can tell them like it is!

Joel Sparks said...

Yet one more reason to have an agent!

Jay said...

I've met Ms. Reid, and I believe she'd follow through on her threats. I'd be afraid. Very afraid.

EJ McKenna. said...

Excellent advice,
I really enjoy coming here - but only around midday. After dark things get scary here! :-)