My Job is to Write

Writer-producer Diane Ademu-John pointed me to this excellent blog post by author John Scalzi on dealing with strangers who want screenwriters and novelists to read their  work, listen to their pitches, etc. He says, in part:

Dear currently unpublished/newbie writers who spend their time bitching about how published/established writers are mean because they won’t read your work/introduce you to their agent/give your manuscript to their editor/get you a job on their television show/whatever other thing it is you want them to do for you:
A few things you should know.

1. The job of a writer is to write. So, I’m looking at one of my book contracts. It says that I need to write a certain type of book (science fiction) of a certain length (100,000 words) by a certain time (er… Hmmm). In return, I get paid a certain amount of money. So that’s the gig.

Here’s what’s not in the contract:

1. That I critique the novels of other people; 

2. That I offer any advice to people on how to get published; 

3. That I arrange introductions to my agent, editor or publisher; 

4. That I do any damn thing, in fact, other than write the book I’ve agreed to write.

The job of a writer is to write.

To which you may say, “Yes, but –” To which I say, you’ve gone one word too far in that sentence.

The rest of the piece is just as brilliant. He's basically saying the same things that Josh Olsen did, only without the anger and profanity that turned off a lot of people.

18 thoughts on “My Job is to Write”

  1. Still, and I know I’ll come to regret this one day, it’s so uncool. Since Olsen mentioned Picasso, let me example a non-asshole, well renowned Argentinean novelist Ernesto Sabato (The Tunnel), a former physicist. He stopped reading other people’s material when he slowly started to lose his eyesight, but he still would take meetings with burgeoning writers. Since he couldn’t read what they wrote, he would ask ‘Why do you want to write’ and if the answer was ‘If I don’t write I can’t live with myself’ he would say ‘I’m sure you’ll do great’ — now, this may not be what the aspiring writer had in mind, but that’s a class act of a writer

  2. And yet some writers still generously share more than their PR efforts on their blogs, kindly giving their thoughts and opinions on all things writerly, including excellent advice, as you do, Lee!

  3. No one owes anyone anything. That doesn’t change just because someone becomes big, powerful, prestiguous, influential, etc.
    That said, when they’re asked, they should be polite. And those asking, when they get the “no,” should say thank for for letting me ask and then move on in a respecful manner.
    Luckily, there are lots of wonderful people in the literary world who take opportunities to help others even though it’s not in the job description. They are the class acts with the big hearts and the memories that they were once newbies themselves. I for one am glad I’ve had the good fortune to cross paths with a few of them.

  4. Established writers helped me get going; established agents were willing to look at the work of a tyro. Established editors gambled on a newcomer. I occasionally try to pay back what I received, but within limits. Often I’ll look at a single chapter. That’s usually all I need. That said, I’ve faced my share of barbarians who are incensed that I won’t read their entire opus, or worse, that I find little to praise in what I do read. They want a week of my time without paying me, the free use of critical faculties acquired over a lifetime, and a list of all my business connections along with a glowing recommendation. Even so, it has been my pleasure to help half a dozen people get started.

  5. Scalzi’s piece is, I think, worse than Olson’s.
    Everyone except children, the disabled and retirees have jobs, sometimes more than one. We all have time pressures to contend with. Does that leave no free time for anything else?
    Whether one helps someone else by giving them the benefit of one’s expertise depends on a variety of circumstances.
    Some people will contribute their time to others without expecting anything in return except, one hopes, gratitude. That’s the essence of volunteerism.
    If you don’t want to do it, don’t. You have no obligation. But save me from the excuses – I can’t spare an iota of my time, otherwise I won’t fulfill my contract and I’ll end up homeless.
    Does Scalzi do nothing but write 16 hours a day? Everyone has some leisure time. You can give some up, if you want to. And I’m tired of the slipery slope argument, i.e. if I give someone a little solicited advice, they’ll expect me to sell their novel, etc.
    So say no, gently. It is the established author in this relationship who has the power and draws the boundries, and they can decline any request any time they want.

  6. It just so happens that I received an email from the press representative for a well known film producer, who is still very active, asking me when I would like him to call me to conduct an interview about an actor he once cast in one of his films whose life I am researching.
    This producer could buy and sell Scalzi. Yet, he is willing to take the time to speak with me.
    Really, what both Olson and Scalzi’s pieces reveal is how self-important some writers feel.

  7. Apparently, Mr. Winkler, you didn’t read Scalzi’s entire post. Or if you did, you may be one of those he mentioned. Oh this doesn’t apply to me.
    No, Scalzi doesn’t write sixteen hours a day. He DOES have a wife and daughter that he wishes to spend time with and their are other commitments in his life that he must first honor.
    The thrust of his post, and Olson’s, not to mention Lee and other writers, is that they’ve all tried that polite response. All it’s got them is a lot of crap thrown their way. For every one that responds politely to their noes, they get a flood of hysterical nuts that don’t get that there’s nothing special about their request.

  8. Peter,
    Both of the examples that you mention — yours and Bob’s — are completely different than what John Scalzi, Josh Olson and I are talking about. It’s one thing to ask to interview someone for a book you are writing and another to ask them to read your script, listen to your TV series idea, or coach you on pitching.
    I have answered questions for hundreds of people researching unsold pilots, or shows that I’ve worked on, etc. I have been interviewed countless times for articles, books, term papers and thesises (thesies? whatever he plural of “thesis” is). Just this week alone, I sent a stranger an episode that never aired of one of my shows…and another an unsold pilot he’d never seen for a biography of a writer that he’s working on.
    I also donate my time to conduct video interviews for Academy of Television Arts and Science’s Archive of American Television with pioneers and innovators in our industry so reseachers and students will always have access to those vital memories, experiences and insights.
    I can’t say yes to every request that is made of me. What I think Josh, John and I are arguing is that it’s okay for US to say no…and for US to decide how, when and where we want to “give back,” and exercising that choice doesn’t make us selfish, arrogant, assholes.

  9. Lee:
    My problem with Olson and Scalzi is the rather aggressive, preemptive tone in which they express themselves.
    It’s the literary equivalent of Frank Sinatra’s custom made doormat, which said, “Go to Hell.”
    People whose accomplishments make them the targets of impositions from strangers can deal with it rather easily. And one of Mr. Scalzi’s rationales – how precious his time is – seems less persuasive in light of the time he expends on writing a carefully enumerated list of reasons not to ask him a favor.
    So fine, he doesn’t want to read other people’s work and advise them. But why does he have to make such a big fuss about it? What justifies his and Olson’s aggrievement?
    Sorry. I won’t go on. I’m beginning to repeat myself unnecessarily.

  10. I always try to be polite and sometimes I’ve been too polite to get myself out of a corner, and so on occasions in the past I’ve ended up reading someone’s stuff.
    Not any more. Not since the last guy started sending his manuscript out to editors with selected (and slightly altered) quotes from my feedback attached in the form of an endorsement.

  11. Scalzi and Olson are too nice.
    Try Ellison… who is one of the most-generous-with-his-time-for-new-writers established writers around, but understands exactly what Billy Wilder’s secretary did to make things impossible.

  12. I understand the frustration of the writers. They are being put in a difficult position by demanding persons who feel they are entitled to receive help, and who may very well become abusive if their expectation are not met. On the other hand, speaking from a Customer Service background, it is just bad business to have even one upset customer as it damages the writer’s reputation and all writers in the business. So a third way is necessary to protect both the writer and the other person.
    First, it is normal for persons to want more and more. Every product on earth can be improved and it’s the persons seeking more who drive the economy. Therefore, even though writers write books on how to write and give free seminars (which is great), more is needed to satisfy the demanding persons. And they are not wrong to demand as this shows us what we need to do next, and can be profitable.
    So I suggest that busy screenwriters and authors make a video on ‘how to pitch’ and ‘how to write a spec script’ and on any other topic that is being demanded. So the writer has something to offer and can sell it for $20.00.
    Second, the writer can say they cannont read original work for fear of being sued, but they can join a writer’s workshop to get their work read.
    If all this is done with respect for the new writers, how can the situation turn into bad customer service? Even if the person demands a private coaching session, this can be given for a fee of, say, $200 dollars. The demanding persons are not problems to be gotten rid of, but clients to be served and satisfied — sometimes, cranky, but sometimes full of appreciation.

  13. Like Lee, I’ve looked at hundreds, maybe thousands, of stories with the intent of helping the writer. My wife, an English professor, gives me a few each school year.
    I helped best-sellers Mike and Kathy Gear get started by reading several 500-page manuscripts, marking them up and writing detailed critiques. They have great ability; back then it merely needed some direction, and I was the first person to actually supply it. They are cherished friends to this day. I helped a gifted guy named Fred Bean. He always credited a critique I did on one of his stories as his breakthrough moment.
    Recently a guy asked me via email to critique a story, and said my friend Win Blevins had raved about it. I said sure, send me a couple chapters. He emailed back and said he would send the whole thing; it was that good; I shouldn’t miss it, and by the way, would I endorse it, supply the name of my agent, and also my editors, with a recommendation?
    That set off my crap detector. Win told me he barely remembered the manuscript; it was bad and the man’s peremptory tone turned him off.
    So I emailed the guy and said no, I’d changed my mind and would not have a look. He emailed back wanting a list of the real reasons. I stopped the conversation right there.

  14. I interviewed Tom McGuane for a story about his friend, Gatz Hjortsberg, who I also interviewed earlier and during the conversation on the phone with Tom, who is a cultural icon and literary legend in my view, I mentioned I had books out there and he asked where he could find a copy. I didn’t want him to actually find one of them though and said so. To which he assured me I had nothing to be ashamed of. I said I’d see that he got a sample somehow. Not of the aforesaid books by design.
    Had he not asked I would have never offered my fiction for review. I had an open invite to the ranch and stopped by one Sunday on a fishing trip and just so happened to have 50 pages. Technically I was stopping in to invite him fishing, also a prior invitation on his part.
    He had company with Alabama plates. I recognized the guest through the window, while I knocked on the door. His brother-in-law Jimmy Buffet. Tom graciously chatted at the door for a bit and I finally said, “Well here’s the writing we talked about. We’ll fish some other time.”
    He seemed glad to get it and said so. Offhand I’d say this meets the proper protocol. I’m well-aware of how intrusive some of the unpublished masses can be. They give new writers a bad name and warrant condescending blog posts.


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