Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Writers: When offered help, do you say YES?

A few years ago at a writing conference, I took a master class with a writer who'd published novels, memoirs and essay collections. About 12 writers met with this author for several hours over two days for a combination of lecture, discussion and workshop. The second day's class focused on the first two pages of a manuscript, with each of us reading ours aloud for feedback. At the end of the session, the author offered to take another look at any two-page rewrites that resulted; all we need do is email them to him with a reminder note.

I thought he was maybe just being polite, or that he'd send back a standard perfunctory reply along the lines of "Good work and good luck." I figured he must be too busy anyway. Then weeks went by. A few months. And when I did finally think about following through, I decided he probably wouldn't even remember making the offer.

Then one day when I was feeling particularly miserable, his card found its way to the top of my messy desk. A week later, I'd rewritten those two pages based partly on his critique and hit send, reasoning the worst that could happen was he'd ignore my email.

Three days later, I got a response – several paragraphs on precisely what he thought I'd done well in the rewrite, and a few more specific suggestions for further development. And at the end, a P.S. "You are the only writer in that class who took me up on my offer. Actually, I've made that offer about four times in the last two years, and have only heard from two writers, you included."

I was floored. What idiot writer would pass on the opportunity to get further feedback from a writer of this man's stature, at no additional cost? Well, me, almost.

I thought about this again recently after I got back from another conference and realized that the writing world is probably littered with similarly squandered opportunities.

What writer hasn't at least once received an unexpected and generous offer (from a writer, agent, editor, publisher), to look over something at no cost or obligation – a proposal, manuscript pages, idea, query letter, synopsis, contract – or to otherwise provide additional assistance, advice, contact? And how many times have we either let it slip through the cracks of memory or busy-ness, or filed it too deeply in the back of our minds, or figured he/she was just being polite or wouldn't have the time or interest to respond anyway, or would have forgotten they'd even made the offer?

As for me, the next time someone extends me such an offer, I plan to surprise that person and follow up.


Susan Bearman said...

Lesson learned. I'm not sure why writers are so reluctant, but I'm going to try to followup on every opportunity extended to me. Thanks.

mkempher said...

Wow, that's insanity. If anyone, published or not offered to give me a critique--I'd say how soon. A second, third, fourth set of eyes is essential.

Good post.

MaryAnn/New Follower. :)

Alyssa C. said...

Yes! Great advice to take all the help we can get. I usually do too -- I've emailed my stuff to past professors, friends, and even tweeps :) Never pass up a critique.

June O'Hara said...

Wow, turning down a critique. I almost can't imagine it. I pay people to rip me apart, and thank God for them every day. I could never create a piece of finished work myself. I need other sets of eyes. I don't take all of their suggestions, but a pair of fresh eyes and direct honesty are crucial to me.
Thanks for the post. said...

Very interesting. Good job following through and thanks for the lesson.