Mincemeat: on writing
  "Just keep writing. Keep reading. If you are meant to be a writer, a storyteller, itíll work itself out. You just keep feeding it your energy, and giving it that crucial chance to work itself out. By reading and writing."
Robin McKinley

Asking an Author for Help; or, Why a Writer like Me Is More Useless than You Thought

Several years ago, I did a silly, wonderfully hopeful thing. I had just finished a few drafts of the goose girl and had done enough poking around to learn that getting a book published is hard and that it sure helps to have an agent. I was feeling desperate. Having gotten the idea to do my first novel based on my favorite fairytale from Robin McKinleyís Beauty and thinking she was all around fabulous, I wrote her a letter. (I had read her website and discovered that she preferred mail to email, or I never wouldíve asked her to waste stamps on replying to me.) In it, I explained a little about my book and my hopes for getting published. I wrote, "What do I do now?" and was too embarrassed to actually add, "Would you introduce me to your agent?"

During the four months I waited for her response, I continued to rewrite and researched more diligently how one publishes and had come to realize a few things:
  1. Published writers get lots of requests to read other peopleís manuscripts, more than they could possibly accept
  2. Even if they did read the mss, they couldnít do much about it, anyway
So I was feeling a touch mortified of what Iíd written when I read her letter. In it she told me some things that I shouldíve been able to find out for myself without bothering her, (i.e. look at the resource book Writerís Market). She wrote,
"If you have enough gumption to write a novel, kiddo, you have enough to figure out how to try and get it published."

Honestly, what did I expect? That sheíd write back and say,
"You know, hundreds of people have asked for my help, but for some reason I think youíre the special one, and Iím going to pave the way for you, get you hooked up with my agent and publisher, and see you on the ferry boat to a bound book." Yeah, I admit, I did have a tiny, sweepstakes-winner hope that she might, but my brain shouldíve told me better. Still, I found that reprimand from a hero-writer quite thrilling.

So I kept rewriting and kept doing research on how to get published (I thought Iíd done a lot at the time, but Iíve discovered tricks since, like attending conferences and joining listservs, that I hadnít stumbled across during those early days). I also kept writing to Robin McKinley, and she kept writing back. It was very nice. When I finally sold my book, I thought the most wonderful thing in the world would be to get a blurb from her. I wrote to her, my publisher sent her my book, we never heard back. Dang. I still think it wouldíve been pretty wonderful. But really, what did I expect? (Don't answer that.)

Why am I saying all this? Because I understand the desire to ask an author for help. I understand feeling desperate and alone and confused by the process, and looking for hope or a hand from the writer of a favorite book or even your cousinís neighborís friend who is published. It is a HARD process. Unfortunately, a fellow writer is not an editor, not an agent, not someone who will do you much good.

If you already know the ins and outs of publishing and are really just looking for someone to commiserate with, there are lots of online or offline writers groups. (see links) I believe in support groups of all kinds. But if youíre looking for a lift up into the publishing Olympus, sadly, authors are not the gods who can take your hand.* I would honestly be so thrilled to help out a struggling new writer, to be that connection that makes it happen, but Iím just not. Four separate times Iíve recommended very close friends, who I thought were quite talented, to my agent or editor. Four times they were rejected. And if I read all the manuscripts Iím asked to from acquaintances and strangers, I would not have any time to write.

That being said, sometimes an author can help. Iíve heard of it happening. So if youíre set on going that route, here are some courtesies you might follow:
  • Have read and enjoyed at least one of the authorís books. This is practical as well as polite. There are so many different divisions of publishing, there is no sense in soliciting a writer for help who writes completely different books than you do.
  • Read over the authorís website and find out what form of contact they might prefer. I, for example, prefer email.
  • Read over the authorís website and see if your question is already answered.
  • Understand that the writer is busy and probably feeling pretty helpless at how to help you.
  • Understand that you are not the only fan or acquaintance of this writer who would like to be published and who has solicited the writer for help.
  • Be patient for a response.
  • If the author lets you down ("Why, Ms. McKinley, why?!"), still be courteous. Publishing is a small world and you really canít afford to offend people, particularly any agents or editors you may meet.
  • I might also add, write your book first. You're not going to find an agent or publisher with an uncompleted or unedited book, so focus happily on the writing for as long as you can and worry about the sticky publishing stuff later.

I donít know if any of that was helpful to you. I remember being very clueless and thinking that authors were the top of the totem. Maybe something Iíve said here will make your interactions with writers go better, or maybe it will just help you understand that if we canít help you, itís because we canít even help ourselves.

* As I wrote this line, I was sitting on the bathroom floor with my laptop while my toddler Max played in the tub. Iíd written about 3 lines when Max suddenly gave me the ASL sign that he was "all done." I stood to take him out and discovered that he had cleverly pooed in the water. Iím not sure exactly how, but I think this story illustrates my point brilliantly.

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