It never fails.
I had just finished giving a talk about my work to a group of perhaps a hundred people, and afterwards I sat down at a table to sign copies of my books, which were being sold in the back of the room by a local bookseller.
The first person in line (with a dozen people behind her holding books) was an earnest-looking young woman, who said, “I don’t have a book for you to sign, but I’m an aspiring writer, and I wanted to know…”
It ALWAYS happens and the person is ALWAYS in the front of the line. And I find myself wondering: What is wrong with those people? Are they just so self-centered that they don’t realize how inconsiderate they are being to all the people waiting? I’m mystified.
I have certainly given lots of advice to aspiring writers, at workshops, conferences, and even informally-- but when 50 people are waiting to get books signed? -- No. That is not the time or the place for it.
I am always tempted to say, “Well, there are certain things you have to know if you’re going to be a writer. For instance, do you know the difference between a book signing and a writers’ workshop?”
“Well, which is this?”
Another variant of this gambit is the person who stands in your line in order to give you a plot summary of their proposed novel. Surely there is no more pointless exercise on earth than that. You simply cannot tell from a plot summary if a book will be any good or not.
Imagine yourself in a publishing house some forty years ago, when a mild-mannered, elderly British gentleman comes in with a manuscript, saying, “This is the first thing I’ve ever tried to write. All I’ve ever done in my life is to take care of sick farm animals in Yorkshire, and that’s what this book is about. I want you to print at least a million copies.”
Wouldn’t you throw him out of your office? Doesn’t it sound like an appalling idea for a commercial book? Based on the plot summary, you might well conclude that—but you would be wrong. The book was All Creatures Great and Small, one of the best-selling books of the twentieth century. It succeeded because James Herriot was a wonderful writer; but in someone else’s hands, that plot line could have been deadly dull. The plot summary won’t tell you who can pull off an idea and who can’t.
Sometimes I say to people, “If I give you two eggs, can you tell me if the cake will be any good?”
Occasionally, an oblivious oaf will go one better: she’ll be standing in a booksigning line with a beatific smile, clutching her own unpublished manuscript which she apparently expects you to read. Or if she’s totally undermedicated, perhaps she thinks you will spring up from the table, whip out your cell phone and instruct your agent to accept her as a client right on the spot.
I was once doing a signing with two other authors, and the guy-clutching-the-manuscript stood in each of our lines consecutively, undeterred by the rejections of the first two authors. Afterward, we authors compared notes. One of us told the guy that she had a deadline, and she had no time to read manuscripts. Another one said that she was flying, and thus she had no space in her luggage to take such a large package in her travels.
But I think the best answer was number three: “Because of the possible danger of litigation, my agent will not allow me to read manuscripts except in a formal workshop situation.” -- Is that true? Strictly speaking, no. My agent would prefer that I not rob gas stations or smoke rolled-up pictures of Raymond Carver, but she really has no commandments about my professional choices regarding manuscripts. However, the litigation danger is certainly real.
People don’t know what you’re working on until at least a year after the book is finished. So, suppose somebody gives you an unpublished manuscript about, I dunno, ancient Peru, and, unbeknownst to them, you have spent the past three years working on a book about ancient Peru. Well, if you had accepted their manuscript, and then a year later you published a book about that same subject, it would be almost impossible to convince them that you did not steal the idea. It’s safer not to read unsolicited manuscripts.
I finally concluded that people who accost authors in these ways are childishly self-centered (“Let everybody else wait, while I take twenty minutes of your time.”) and they are lazy. It is much easier to badger whatever writer that Fate has cast into your path than it is to go to a good writers conference, or attend a formal workshop, and to actually pursue a writing career in an organized and professional matter.
Suppose one tried to become a doctor like that? “I don’t have time to go to medical school. Tell me how to perform brain surgery in the next five minutes.”
Mark Twain wrote a wonderful essay about the unsolicited manuscripts he received from would-be authors. He said – I’m paraphrasing here—“You’d like to help these people, but they cannot be helped." The people with a chance of succeeding, said Twain, are those who do their own inquiries, take charge of their own futures, and prepare themselves for the job they want.”
They do not lurk in lecture halls looking for fairy godmothers. Things haven’t changed since Twain’s day. The form letter he composed in reply to these solicitations would still work. I recommend it.
Sharyn McCrumb, known for her Appalachian “Ballad” novels including New York Times Best Sellers She Walks These Hills and The Rosewood Casket, won an East Tennessee Historical Society Award for Ghost Riders. Her novel St. Dale won a 2006 Library of Virginia Award and the AWA Book of the Year Award.
Named a “Virginia Woman of History” in 2008 for Achievement in Literature, Sharyn McCrumb was a guest author at the 2006 National Festival of the Book in Washington, D.C. sponsored by the White House.
She has lectured on her work at Oxford University, the University of Bonn-Germany, and the Smithsonian Institution; taught a writers workshop in Paris, served as writer-in-residence at King College., and given programs at libraries and colleges through the country.
A film of The Rosewood Casket is in production. She has just co-authored a new novel with a race car driver. (More about that later.)