Is There Anybody Going to Listen to My Story?, or, How to Get Read

April 30, 2014 at 6:43 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

This post is my boilerplate for review requests, which in another context would be known as cold calls.

Yes, I will give you some unsolicited advice.  No, I won’t read your [story, novel, poem].  Why?  First, and most importantly, because I’m not a literary agent, a publisher, or a reviewer.  I can barely keep up with my reading pile as it is, and that’s material I’m guaranteed to enjoy.  I still haven’t read The Master and Margarita, David Copperfield, Cloud Atlas, or The Corrections.  I still haven’t read things I paid to read.  In fact, I’m in the process of editing the fourth revision of my own first novel; I still haven’t read things I need to read that I wrote.

Second, there is a glaring problem with your approach.  You don’t know me.  For all you know, your work doesn’t suit my tastes and I’ll give you a scathingly bad review that will make you cry in the shower.  Soliciting me for a review is exactly like walking up to an attractive stranger to ask for a date.  It’s a bold imposition, a gamble that most likely won’t pay off.  Sorry, I’m married.  Sorry, you look like my brother.  Sorry, I have a cold.  Sorry, I’m not the appropriate sexual orientation for you.  Sorry, I’m on my way to a job interview.  Sorry, I just left a funeral.  Sorry, I’m the crazy one your mother warned you about.  Be careful what you wish for.

Writing is lonely and monotonous and uncertain.  Almost nobody makes money doing it.  Everyone wants to be a writer because it’s a very attractive image.  Being a writer is being subsidized by the public to be wise and fascinating and eccentric while setting your own schedule.  It’s a lot like being a rock star, sexy and talented and free to explore the limits of altered states of consciousness.  These are fantasies.  The cold, hard reality of writing is that even the people who love your stuff the most will give it away for free the minute they’re done with it.  They’ll check it out from the library or buy a used copy, ensuring you don’t see any royalties.  You’ll make about $3 a copy at most, and that’s the best case scenario.

Many of the most successful writers of all time have been rejected over and over and over and over and over and over again.  J. K. Rowling, John Kennedy Toole, Kathryn Stockett, Margaret Mitchell, Stephen King… Most of us will never be this good anywhere outside our wildest dreams.  American Idol is a great analogy for publishing.  In the first couple of episodes of each season, there are several contestants who have never received honest criticism.  The result of pure self-confidence in one’s talents, minus critique, is public humiliation.  The appropriate attitude when soliciting criticism is humble.  “Could I possibly impose upon you to point out a few of the most glaring flaws of this piece?”  The biggest difference between American Idol and reading novice writing is that most songs only last about three minutes.  Writing is almost a biological function.  Becoming a writer means developing the ability to read your own work objectively, like it was written by someone else, and ruthlessly carve it and sculpt it until it lives on the page.  The work must justify its existence.

But how are you supposed to start selling your writing?  Chances are very high that you won’t.  If you really are any good, this simple yet brutal fact won’t slow you down.  If you really think you have the chops for it, you should already have started to get some helpful tips in your writing classes at school.  You should already have started sharing your stuff on a blog or a fan fiction site.  You should already have at least one friend or family member who has graciously volunteered some personal time to read your work.  You should already have looked into joining a writers’ group, taking creative writing classes, and submitting your work to literary magazines and to agents.  You should be able to accept that you are working on spec, and that your hourly rate of pay for the first several years of your writing career will be zero dollars and zero cents.

The best thing most of us can do to have a literary life is to support the work of other writers.  I’ve earned as much in three years of writing as I have in three weeks of working as an office assistant.  In that time, I have bought dozens of books and reviewed a few hundred.  If I can ever earn enough to subsidize my reading habit it will be a red letter day.  The sad state of affairs is that writers must compete with every other form of entertainment media for eyeball time.  The entire Internet is available around the clock, and most of it is free of charge.  The more we become accustomed to having instantaneous access to high quality, free entertainment, the less viable the production of that high quality material becomes.  Investing in books is a way of clapping for Tinkerbell.

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