I want to state without disclaimers: I WILL read your script, novel, poem, short story, or other scribblings, IF you will just leave it on your kitchen table. Put out some cookies (preferably oatmeal raisin, so I can feel like I’m eating healthy) and milk. Make sure the back door is unlocked. Go to sleep. I will creep in during the night, read your work, critique it, and slip back out again. I promise not to steal anything, unless your cookies suck.
Seriously, though, I agree with both Sanford and Scalzi. But I’d like to add a few points, re-emphasize a couple of others, about sending requests to writers.
- Some writers supplement their income with critique or teaching services, so it’s unreasonable to expect them to read your work for free. My own policy is, with a few exceptions, to expect payment for services rendered, when those services are going to take more than 15 to 30 minutes of my time. It’s different in situations where I’m just skimming in order to offer advice about agents and the like. (But in these cases, it certainly helps if you come with a referral from someone I know, rather than just out of the blue.)
- The chance a writer will respond to you depends not just on workload but on how much email they receive from readers already. Not including professional correspondence with people I already know (probably 700 to 1,000 emails a week), I get probably about 10 to 15 emails from readers a week, plus another 10 to 12 requests for something, plus another dozen queries from editors, interviewers, and then another 20 or so emails via Facebook, etc. That’s a lot to deal with. Imagine being Neil Gaiman and getting, probably 200 emails a day of that nature, plus all of his normal daily correspondence. So, pick your spots.
- Don’t expect me to write your research paper for you. I get a fair number of students who expect me to answer very general questions about my work so they can finish their research papers. I don’t mind a couple of specific questions, but something like “Can you explain what you were trying to do with City of Saints?” is tiresome and lazy. This pisses me off more than anything, frankly.
- Understand that silence from me, or any writer, might mean I didn’t have time or the email didn’t go through. Because I get so much email to my hotmail account, I suggest a polite follow-up in two or three weeks. Sometimes I meant to respond and just got caught up in things.
- Be as specific in your request as possible, and show that you’re a professional in your mindset. By this I mean, if you query me or any writer with something along the lines of “I’ve written 10k of a novel and I love your work and here it is, I thought you could tell me I’m on the right track,” I’m going to ignore that. If you say “I’ve finished a novel. Here’s a brief summary. I’ve researched agents and narrowed it down to X, Y, and Z” and then ask something specific, hey, I might answer that.
But there’s another point that’s not really been brought up. I respond to a high percentage of queries and requests because it’s beneficial to me. For better or worse–sometimes I think people take me for granted as a result–I don’t see the professional writer as up on a hill somewhere with the peons all down below. I see the spectrum of experience as a hierarchy, yes, and one that needs to be respected in many ways, but not in terms of the crosspollination that occurs from interacting with new and emerging writers.
In other words, I get a great deal of benefit from keeping my finger on the pulse of what’s going on out there. As I’ve remarked before, having a sense of who is coming up through the ranks, discovering an amazing manuscript, or whatever–these things are not just ways of paying back to the community, they’re ways of keeping myself plugged in to what’s relevant. And, several times, I’ve been happy to find that people have actually appreciated what I’ve done and helped me out, too. I would hate to lose that connectivity and that synergy by putting too high a wall between myself and other writers.
In short, one way of paying back and being a useful member of the community is using your leverage on other people’s behalf (something Scalzi does on a regular basis, btw). Sometimes I’m too busy to be of use. Sometimes I just need down time. But we are a community, and it’s important to remember that.