Friday, February 26, 2010

How to Get That Deer-In-The-Headlights-Look on Lauren’s Face

I just read my friend Sunny Frazier’s informative post, Welcome to Your World about a writer’s pet peeve: Meeting people who say they have a book in them, but are just too busy to write it. If you are a budding writer who simply can’t seem to get your book on paper, I suggest you read it.

This week I have been dealing with my own writer’s pet peeve: Unpublished manuscripts from those who managed to get their books onto paper.

Flooded with manuscripts, both agents and publishers tell writers that their best bet to get their foot in the door is to have their manuscript recommended by someone they know, like a published author.

I met my first unpublished writer at my very first booksigning for my very first book, A Small Case of Murder. The booksigning was held at the general store in Chester, WV. When I arrived on the scene, I was thrilled to find a line of people waiting to buy my book, written by their local author.

Clutching his manuscript, this writer had been waiting for close to an hour to beg me to read it. Nowhere had I read in my research about booksigning etiquette anything about this type of situation.

In the heat of the moment, I had no idea what to say. With that deer-in-the-headlights expression that I have perfected over the years (We can thank motherhood for that.), I stammered out some pleasantries while trying to ease him over to the side to let the next customer in line come forward. But this writer was not to be deterred from this opportunity to get his work noticed. He pulled up a chair and sat behind the table next to me! After several minutes of my ignoring him in order to concentrate on readers who had come out to meet me, he left. At least he bought a copy of my book on the way out.

I feel honored when a fellow writer asks me for advice. It’s a pat on the back that says they recognize that I have come a far way, baby! However, when a writer asks me to read his work, I have to confess that feeling of honor is drowned by a tidal wave of fear.

This is how it is supposed to happen:
  1. Writer gives unpublished manuscript to published author. That’s supposed to be me.
  2. Published author reads manuscript and recognizes that it is the next great American novel.
  3. Published author calls their big New York City literary agent.
  4. Big New York City literary agent breaks leg rushing to sign up the next Dan Brown.
  5. Writer becomes published author.
As the published author, I’m having problems fulfilling Steps 2 and 3. Let’s address Step 3 first: I don’t have a big New York City literary agent.

Many inexperienced writers assume that every published author has a literary agent. Almost always, when a manuscript is thrust at me, the writer will say, “…and if you like it, maybe you can pass it on to your agent...” at which point I hang my head, look at my feet, and confess, “I don’t have an agent.” Then, I feel like I have to defend my status as an author by explaining that a lot of us don’t have agents. At which point the writer will say, “Well, maybe you can call SOMEBODY!”

Who? My publisher? In some cases, that might work. Unfortunately, almost every manuscript that has been given to me has been out of my, and my publisher’s, genre, which brings me to my problem in fulfilling Step 2.

I write murder mysteries. The vast majority of books I read have a dead body in them and detectives trying to find out who made that dead body that way. Yes, I have degrees in literature and I am very well read, but, when it comes to judging the quality of unpublished works outside my genre, I can’t offer a critique beyond character development, plot flow, and sentence structure.

The manuscript I have minimized on my desktop right now is about cannibalistic vampires. Unfortunately, this writer chose the last living and not yet undead person on the face of this earth who has not read any of the hundreds of vampire books that have come out recently. For all I know about this genre, this manuscript could be the next Dracula. Maybe it is. I don’t know.

Understanding the frustration and, sometimes, desperation of the unpublished writer in trying to get their foot in the door, most authors want to help if we can. But sometimes, we fear the consequences if we can’t. I know one author who got her own book slammed on Amazon and every other book site that accepts amateur reviews by an angry writer after giving his manuscript an unfavorable critique.

Right now, I have a manuscript on my desk written by a teacher my son will have next year. It’s extremely good, but I can’t help but ask what I would do if it wasn’t. Would I have to start homeschooling my son?

Many published authors won’t read other writer’s manuscripts. They simply don’t have the time between families, jobs, and writing careers. However, many of us will make the effort.

If you want to submit your manuscript to an author, please keep a few rules in mind:
  1. If you want an honest critique, it is best to get it from an author in your genre. Also, they are more likely to have the connections you need.
  2. Don’t approach the author at a book signing event. The author is there to publicize their book. This isn’t to say you can’t make contact. The most appropriate way is to introduce yourself, mention that you are a writer, and even give her your business card. Say nothing else about your writing unless you are asked. E-mail the author with your request later.
  3. Be gracious if the author fails to meet your expectations either by giving you a poor critique, not being able to introduce you to the right people, or simply declining to read your manuscript.
My last and most important piece of advice: Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.


Karyne said...

Oh my, that was a tale for the telling and a great inside view of what can happen when you get a degree of success under your belt. I think you handled it with a great degree of grace and courtesy.

Anonymous said...

Great advice! :)

Sunny Frazier said...

Well, we can tell you are a Southern girl! I think my response would have been much less polite.

I laughed like crazy reading your post, but you have two excellent points. First, etiquette in the writing world. Said person thrusting the manuscript at you is a user and won't get far in the publishing industry with that attitude. Second, you aren't in any position to pull strings. You're not a publisher, a PR person, an agent or an advocate. The person needs to make contacts on his/her own. Knowing the business and how it runs is key.

Lauren Carr said...

As a matter of fact I've always considered myself a Southern girl. But then I met a "real" Southerner who said I didn't qualify as a Southerner because I come from WEST Virginia, who was on the Union side during the war. Oh, well.

Alice Rene said...

I'm impressed. I've never had anyone ask me to help them get an agent or publisher. Maybe they I knew I had enough trouble taking care of myself to be able to find the time or energy to take care of them. You handled the would-be-writer perfectly. Good for you.

Alice at