Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware
I get a lot of Writer Beware correspondence. I mean a lot--up to 20 emails a day. I also often hear from writers who don't have scams to report, or an agent's or publisher's reputation to research, but are looking for answers to general questions about writing and publishing, or are wondering where and how to start their agent or publisher search, or just want to reach out to someone who's been there, done that and may have a bit of encouragement to offer. It can take quite a bit more time to respond to such emails than to the more basic questions, but I'm glad to help if I can.
Because of my volume of correspondence, and also the fact that Writer Beware is something I do in my spare time, it often takes me several days to reply, especially where the question involves research. My Writer Beware email address has an autoresponder explaining this, so that people won't be upset (I hope) if they don't hear from me for a week. But there's no autoresponder on my personal email, which is where I receive a lot of the less Writer Beware-ish questions--including one, last week, from an aspiring writer who was worried that his friend's negative reaction to his work-in-progress meant the work was doomed. He wanted to know if I could give him some advice, since the subject of his book paralleled some of the themes I work with in my own writing.
For a variety of reasons, I never critique unpublished manuscripts. But his brief description of his book intrigued me, so I wrote back to let him know that while I couldn't read it, I'd be glad to dialog about ideas. He immediately sent me a very long plot summary. It looked complicated and I wanted to give it serious attention. Because I was very busy right then--a writing project, a trip out of town to work on a construction project, a similar project at home, and of course, Writer Beware--I put off looking at it.
So a week goes by, and just as I'm thinking that I really have to sit down and give this writer a thoughtful answer, I get a nasty note from him implying that I've wasted his time and asking me to "at least" tell him why I found his work so offensive I couldn't be bothered to respond. Now, maybe when I received his plot summary I should have dashed off a note letting him know that it'd be several days before I could reply. On the other hand, it's not like anyone is paying me to answer requests for advice from total strangers. Given that he was asking me for a favor, I assumed that he was willing to be patient. I wrote back to tell him so, upon which he informed me that he wasn't going to kiss my ass just to get my help.
Now, I'm not writing this to whine about mean emails, or to complain about rude and ungrateful writers, or to pat myself on the back for doing volunteer work. Yes, I help writers in my spare time, and it takes up a good deal more spare time than it probably should. But that's my choice. I don't have to do it; I want to do it.
But if, as an aspiring author, you're going to contact a professional writer--or a publishing professional of any kind--and ask for their help for free, you need to be aware that a) they have no obligation toward you; b) they are probably very busy with their actual jobs and helping you is extra; and c) you are not going to inspire them to be more helpful by reacting rudely if they don't get back to you fast enough or they provide advice you don't like.
The Internet has provided a truly astonishing degree of access to publishing professionals. In the olden days, when telephones and snail mail were the only options, agents and editors responded only to queries, and writers could be reached only through their publishers. Nowadays, that divide has all but vanished. Agents, editors, and others freely dispense opinions and advice online, and almost anyone is reachable at any time by email, blogs, websites, social media, etc. I think that many aspiring writers, especially those who don't remember the pre-Internet world, have come to take this incredible degree of access much too much for granted--and in some cases, even to see it as a kind of entitlement, where it's the professional's obligation to help, rather than his or her generous choice.
I'm not saying that you should fall at the professionals' feet and worship them, or that you should be uncritical of what they tell you. They are people, and even the wisest people make mistakes, have opinions that can be disputed, and manifest bias. But if you contact a professional with a question or a request for advice, you do need to be aware that you are imposing on their time, and that you yourself should behave professionally.
In other words, if you want the milk, don't diss the cow.
(I should say that 99% of the people who contact me are polite, professional, and very pleasant to deal with. I thank them for that!)