Manuscript from Hell

Novelist PJ Parrish agreed to read a manuscript as a favor to a friend of a friend. The book is awful and there are a few things she’d like to say to the author:

Get out, now, buddy. Get out of any notion that you could possibly ever
succeed as a writer. Because you are tone-deaf to dialog, blind to
characterization, and utterly and completely unable to tell a basic
linear-plot story. Worse, you didn’t bother to learn a damn thing about
the craft that goes into fiction writing before you tried. You had the brass balls to think you could shortcut all that.

God, this just rots my socks, this whole idea that anyone can just
write a novel these days. I have had it with professionals who write
and think that just because their printer spat out 200 double-spaced
pages of typing, they have made the leap to professional writer.

But instead of saying that, she simply told the author she was too busy to read his manuscript after all. I’ve done that, too.

It’s even trickier when you’re asked to blurb a book… and you start reading and discover, for whatever reason, that you just don’t like it.  That’s happened to me a few times over the years.  In that situation, I politely decline to offer a blurb, saying something like "this book just wasn’t my kind of thing" or something else vague and non-judgemental.  Only a handful of authors whose work I read and declined to blurb have pressed me for specifics. And when they do, I give them the reasons I didn’t like their book — but I resent being put in such an awkward position (ie trying to be honest without hurting their feelings) simply because I did them a favor. It’s a no-win situation for me and they should know that.

14 thoughts on “Manuscript from Hell”

  1. I have to genuinely like a book to blurb it. I would say that happens 80% of the time. It’s the other 20% that’s hard…

  2. I’d rather hear about how bad my stuff is so I can know the truth of it, than to have someone spare my feelings by not giving me what I asked for.
    There’s something to be said of being nice and considerate, but if the person genuinely has no talent (at all), are you really doing them any favors by not telling them?

  3. I’m a computer programmer in my professional life, and I’m often told, “I always liked computers as a kid – I think I’ll go into that instead – the pay’s better, and I can type really fast, so I should do well.”
    Explaining that it takes years to learn how to write a program people will want to use doesn’t help. A startling number of people believe that if they’re qualified to use computer programs they must be qualified to create them, just as I’m sure many people believe that since they like to read novels, they should be able to write one. They can already type really fast, so they should do well, right?

  4. I can’t even imagine how tough that would be–I can barely comment on the short stories and poems my own students ask me to read–and they are my students, not my peers!

  5. Bob Tipton-
    I had to laugh aloud at your comment. I own a computer forencics/electronic evidence investigative agency, and I hear similar things all the time; “I know a lot about computers, and I’d love to get paid what you get paid,” alongside “My nephew works at CompUSA, and he said he’ll do it for a lot less than what you’re quoting.”
    We’ll just ignore the 20+ years in the IT industry (from network admin to security manager and everything in between), the incredible expense for training and equipment, and the years of hands-on nuts and bolts experience that makes me worth what I charge.
    Same thing with writing. See GET SHORTY for a wonderful scene that sums up most people’s perceptions of the writing process: “Just put down the words you want, then get someone else to put in commas and shit, type it up, and you’re done!” (Not an exact quote, but the sentiment is close enough.)
    Yup. That’s all there is to writing, people. You betcha.

  6. In theory, though, it should be easier to be a pretty good writer right away if you’ve always been an avid reader. I think you use a lot of the same areas of your brain in both – processing language, translating it into mental images – and so it shouldn’t be so hard to “switch hit.” I mean, if you’ve read a lot of books, how can’t you not have a clue about constructing a story? Of course, I’m Exhibit A about why this is stupid idea but still, it’s a tantalizing notion…

  7. Hi Lee,
    I was in a foul mood when I wrote that post because that morning I had also taken a phone call from a friend of a friend (sigh) who wanted to ask me a few questions about publishing. (I had agreed to this).
    I first asked the person what kind of book he wrote — i.e. genre? mystery? literary whatever? He couldn’t articulate an answer. I told him he might want to think about that a little so he could write a good query letter. Then the questions started:
    Q. What’s a query letter?
    Q. How do I become a bestseller?
    Q. Why is a hack like James Patterson on the Times list?
    Q. Who will design my cover?
    Q. Why do I need an agent?
    And on…
    I asked him if he had even FINISHED his book yet. He said, yeah, two years ago. I asked him why he was just now thinking about submitting it. He said he didn’t take rejection well. I told him he had start growing a thick skin and get used to the idea that there were people out there ready to tell him his baby was ugly. I told him if he ever got far enuf, an editor would probably want him rewrite it.
    He gasped. (I kid you not) and said it didn’t need rewriting.
    Just kill me now…

  8. What do you do when it’s a close friend who wants the endorsement, and the book is unworthy? That’s the one that sends me into a tailspin. One of my tactics is to draft a blurb without praise-words in it, or a blurb that regurgitates the theme or contents of the book. But in the end, one is still stuck with the need to say no on occasion, and that is hard.

  9. I have yet been asked for a blurb (what the hell’s wrong with me?) but I have been asked to read manuscripts. I’m quickly getting to the point where I would like to say, “Give me twenty pages and an outline” and make that my mantra. (I said this at P.J. Parrish).
    I think it’s hard to give blurbs. If you’re excited about it, it will come through. If you aren’t…how do you remain ethical? How do you damn with faint praise and hope people get the hint? You don’t want your name on some books. How do experienced people deal with this?

  10. J. Carson Black: The flip answer is to quote P.J. Parrish and say to grow a thick skin and tell ’em the baby’s ugly. After all, you writers are supposed to have that anyway, right?
    Seriously, I can see it would be a problem if it’s someone who’s a friend first and an attempted writer after. Friendships can die off for the damnest of reasons, and you’d hate to let a 300-page manuscript be the cause.
    My solution is to simply have no friends. Saves a lot of wear and tear and it leaves me with more time to blog.

  11. That’s a key element in getting work done Bill. What I’m wondering about is the “tin-ear for dialogue” quip. What would an example of this bogus dialogue look like?


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