Help me...I'm a pathetic loser

Most Snarksome One (and your Yapsome Dog, too),

I have much sympathy for the poor gentleman trying to avoid reading his uncle's novel. My question is, how do you deal with complete strangers who--even without the bonds of blood or friendship as an excuse--also try to get you to read their work. Or, worse, try to get you to help them make professional contacts even though you haven't read their work.

At a recent professional gathering, while the rest of us were content to sip our wine and pretend to talk about the craft of writing while actually whining about the business of writing, one gentleman showed up with his manuscript in hand, and tried to talk several of us into introducing him to our agents or editors. Protests that we hadn't even read his work fell on deaf ears; he was clearly prepared to whip the manuscript out at the slightest provocation so we could read it on the spot; and equally content to have us offer referrals without first reading his work.

Not only were the one-on-one conversations with this gentleman awkward; but the larger conversations, which he kept trying to turn from more interesting topics to the marketing of his particular story, were unpleasant as well.

Alas, claiming an alternate vocation wasn't an option at a function attended entirely by writers and would-be writers. Short of abandoning the gathering to seek out stronger drink, how can one deal with such individuals in a professional--or failing that, at least effective--manner.

And if there is no way to deal with such individuals, where does Miss Snark recommend we hide the body?

This reminds me of the heartstopping moment during the Q&A part of a presentation at the Small Press Center. A questioner asked E. L. Doctorow to read his manuscript (which of course he just happened to have brought with him). To Mr. Doctorow's credit he did not preface his response with "you nitwit" but implication is all. He simply said "no".

And no, sans reason, is ok. You are not obliged by mammon, god or poodle to read anyone's work. A person who breaches the decorum by asking for this, particularly if they are not picking up the "you nitwit" signals, can be given the cold shoulder. "No" is a perfectly valid response, and you do not need to explain yourself.

One on one conversations are concluded briskly with "please excuse me" and leaving him. Group conversations are more difficult but a complete change of subject "how about them Yankees" is entirely suitable. Failing that, of course, "excuse me" and leaving the group is ok too.

It's hard to do this cause we've all been brought up to be nice and helpful. It's actually very liberating to just say "no" and once you discover how fun it is, you'll find yourself saying no to all sorts of things. Drugs, sex, rock n roll...well..ok, yes is still my first choice on those.

PS You put the body on the Cook County voting rolls of course.


Ray Goldensundrop said...

Just saying no is a liberating exercise. Having been raised in Minnesota, I was crippled with niceness, probably from all the fresh fish and wild rice. I'm pretty sure it wasn't the Jello salads or Velveta. Living in Memphis and near DC cured me, so now it's not only NO but NOT IN THIS LIFETIME, GETIT? Maybe writer wannabees are dimmer than most, but if I'm going to waste my energy, it's going to be on something fun (like d, s, R&R) not masochistic pursuits.

Hide the body in the world's largest hotdish, should things get this far. The condensed mushroom soup, in conjunction with canned onion rings, will eventually disolve the evidence into French cut green beans.

Bibliophile Bitch said...

I think telling this moron that he's being unprofessional may help the dork in the long run.
I wonder if people realize that writers now have to have pen names to avoid this bullshit?
It sucks.
Someone needs to inform the ignorant that they are not going to get published this way.
As a writer I say tell the ass he's cutting his own throat by pushing his work down someone elses.

Anonymous said...

I've dealt with this before, but am rather more direct about it, since no one else was willing to address the problem.

I took the person aside, made eye contact, and let him know "You don't do that here."

Any protest to the contrary is met with, "I'm sure it's a great read, BUT, you have to follow the protocols of publishing. We're not doing business here, so you have to put that packet away and not talk about it again." Then I stare at them until they agree with the rules.

Usually the most clueless will twig and behave since I've proved that I'm the real crazy in the room. If they continue to be a problem, then you call security.

Some people go their whole lives getting that kind of reaction from others. and think it is normal, so they honestly don't notice. Like any little kid who doesn't know the social rules you have to tell them direct, without fuss, and don't worry about hurting their feelings. Body language is a mystery to them.

Heaven knows it took me awhile to figure it out!

Sherri said...

If you consult with other members of the group and they concur that he is seriously curtailing your collective fun, I suggest taking him aside and saying something like this:

"If you don't quit asking us to read your manuscript, you'll have to go somewhere else. You're harshing our mellow."

Some people will not respond to tact.

December Quinn said...

"No" is a perfectly valid response, and you do not need to explain yourself.

Goodness! For a minute I thought I'd stumbled into a blog by Miss Manners, as she says exactly the same thing. No apology or explanation is ever needed--you're not obligated to share your reasons for not doing someone afavor any more than you're obligated to do the favor to begin with.

not Anonymous said...

Maybe working a crappy job that forces me to deal with the public all day has led me to be intolerant of nit wits, but I think I'd have just said, "Fuck off.

Rei said...

It's amazing how accommodating people can be to strangers. Has anyone here ever seen "Da Ali G Show"? It's hosted by a Jewish comedian named Sasha Cohen who pretends either to be a ghetto kid named "Ali G" or a racist, misogynistic Kazakh named "Borat".

His Borat sketches demonstrate this point to a tee. He got an Oklahoma city council to declare a "Tishnik Massacre Remembrance Day" for the fictional "Tishnik Massacre". He makes demeaning statements about women, jews, and gypsies with a perfectly straight face. He sang a fake Kazakh national anthem for several minutes at a sports game. The whole time, people just sit there and act friendly.

In one of his most famous sketches, he went into a country western bar for open mic night and took the stage. At first, his song was about how bad transportation is in Kazakhstan, but out of the middle of nowhere in the song, he switches to "In my country we have problem; And that problem is the Jews. They take everybody's money...", building up to the chorus "Throw the Jew down the well! So my country can be free; You must take him by the horns; Then we'll have a big party!" At first, people started looking at him incredulously, but he kept encouraging them to take part. By the end they were clapping along with him; he even got half the bar to sing along.


On the other side of the spectrum, I have the opposite problem. I've been having family members and friends offer to read *my* manuscript. Is it acceptable to say "yes"? I've always tried to let them know that they're reading a WIP, that they are under absolutely no obligation to read it, and that if they do read it, they're required to let me have it and to be brutal. To be fair, my partner's input early on is what got me to actually finish my manuscript; she seemed to love it, even though I kept pressing her to be mean. But I worry about having friends or relatives read my work; I don't want to be like the recently described uncle.

The Practical Vampire Slayer said...

Excellent slaying advice, Miss Snark! Saying "no" to a vampire of this sort is not only "ok," it is clear, definite, and just plain old necessary besides! One of the surest ways to recognize a vampire is by it's inability to "take a hint," and it will never stop trying to feed (insatiable, right?) until we tell it clearly, and without apology, "No." And, in my experience, it really does feel good!

truthteller said...

I used to be very intolerant about people who wanted me to read their stuff, introduce them to an agent etc., then I needed blurbs from good authors (who didn't know me from anyone) and they were kind enough to give them to me. I still hate it when people ask, and I don't usually actually help except in a really minimal way, but I'm always friendly and kind and I always honestly wish I had the time to do more. Karma and comity.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

ALWAYS say yes to sex, drugs, and rock and roll, Miss Snark. Tell YK to, also. You'll never go wrong if you do... at least at the moment, anyway. The next day? You'll never know until you try.

Keep on banging the head that does not bang...

Eileen said...

I heard Jimmy Hoffa was trying to peddle his manuscript and this is why he's never been found again.

geniusofevil said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
AChicagoan said...

Hey, that's not a very fair representation of the voters of Cook County. We haven't had any dead people vote since the last election!!

Anonymous said...

Once someone tried to push their work on to me at a signing. My response: "I'm working on a novel with the same subject matter. It wouldn't be fair for you or me if I were to read your work." It helped that my editor happened to be there, enthusiastically nodding her head to reinforce every word I said.

Believe it or not, it happened to be dog's own truth at the time, but it has worked as a great excuse subsquently.

Bill Peschel said...

Being raised by clams (long story), I've had to learn a number of social lessons from books, and the Patrick O'Brian novels were a big help when it came to dealing with strangers.

Several times, the eminent surgeon Dr. Maturin would be willing to "freeze" some importuning idiot, watching them as if they were some faintly disgusting specimen under a microscope.

This is the long way around to agreeing that "no" is the correct answer. It's also permissible to hold the person asking the question -- as a total stranger -- in contempt for bothering you with his nonsense.

It's one thing to deal with friends who have some claim on your affections. You wish to treat them civilly and not hurt their feelings. It is not the case with someone attempting to claim the same benefits without earning them first.

Daisy said...

I absolutely agree with the "Just say 'No'" advice, but for the exceptionally polite and/or timid, I'd suggest a slightly less direct (but just as firm) "I'm sorry, but this is a social gathering; we don't do business here." Same thing, more words.

If that doesn't work, a storm drain is an excellent place for bodies, provided you cut them into managable pieces before disposal.

Anonymous said...

December Quinn--excellent point about Miss Manners.

As I recall, Miss Manners suggests some variations from a simple "no"--such as, "No, I'm so sorry, I can't" or "sorry, I just can't." Keep in mind that Miss Manners knows that you have to be able to say "no" to people who might be friends or family, not just strangers.

Miss Manners warns people that the person requesting the favor usually keeps trying, so you just keep repeating the same mantra, over and over, until the person gives up.

And she does indeed advise strongly against the use of any reason or excuse, whether true or false. First, that just encourages the favor-asker to argue with you about your reason, and, secondly, if you lie, odds are good you won't remember which lie you told next time you run into the favor-asker. ("Is your aunt better now?" "Huh?" "From the leprosy? You had to go see her in the hospital?")

One novelist--sorry, forgotten who this is--included a friendly letter to the reader at the end of the book, in which he answered the questions he gets asked by readers and aspiring novelists. As I recall, he covered: whether he reads manuscripts (no); who his agent is (name and address provided); how to get published (some suggestions). That way, he can just refer anyone who approaches him to his book!

E. Dashwood said...

Anyone remember Alvin Pepler?

Just finished Philip Roth's "Zuckerman Bound." It follows the adventures of Roth's literary alterego, Nathan Zuckerman, who has just published "Carnovsky," the alterego of Portnoy. (Following this?) It's about the consequences of great fame and celebrity.

Alvin Pepler, who is from the same nabe in Newark as Zuckerman, keeps popping up in the street (stalking actually). There is a hilarious depiction of how earnest obsequiousness turns into threatening behavior after Zuckerman finally agrees to read Pepler's writing and gives it a bad review. Soon Zuckerman is traveling with a bodyguard, which at least he can afford because of the success of his own book.

Anonymous said...

Hey Sue, trust me in a few years you'll say no.
About the manuscript guy: Take him to the side and say, "Hey buddy you're screwing yourself." Period. I mean, it ain't like uncle 75. He ain't family and you don't have to be nice. Maybe he'll get a clue. Who knows.

Georgia Girl

Writerious said...

I meet with a similar situation on writing boards where a newcomer pops in and says, "I've been writing a few stories, blah, blah, and I'd like to get an agent. Can anyone recommend a good agent?"

This is usually a sincere request from someone who just doesn't know the ropes yet. I usually explain that it's difficult for agented authors to recommend newcomers their own agents, because a recommendation would imply that you've read the newcomer's work and thoroughly approve of it. Most newcomers haven't thought of that. Then it's a simple step to refer people to the AAR site, where they can look up agents themselves, and the Preditors and Editors site, where they can learn to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

How do I know all this? Because I was one of those bright-eyed newcomers long ago, and it was Jane Yolen, bless her heart, who kindly gave me the same spiel.

Anonymous said...

I think you have to be nice--because for all his or her rudeness, the wannabe author may be the next hot ticket. You don't want your name cropping up on some talk show as the ignoramus who crudely rebuffed the newly great.

And rudeness is not a sign of poor writing, so the scenario above is possible, even if unlikely.

But of course I agree with the great and wise Miss Snark and the ever-popular Miss Manners. (and dog forbid, Pres. Reagan!) Just say no, or no thanks, or sorry, no. Without apology or excuse.

And in case anyone needs to know this, this tactic also works with kids.

Anonymous said...

Some time back, I read some advice for refusing a favour in a culture where it's rude to say 'no' - really long silences until the person gives up.

I wonder if that would work here:

"Can you read my book?"
Pause. Deep sigh. Fidget.
"Or maybe the first five chapters?"
Silence. "Well..." Exhale.
"Or maybe you can recommend a critique group for me?"
"You see..." Handwave. Pause.
"I'll be going then. Thanks anyway."

Julia said...

This goes on everywhere! Writers should take a hint from job seekers in the corporate world. When you meet a contact who could hire you, you don't ask for a job, you ask advice on where to look for a job.

Twice I've had the opportunity to meet with writing professionals. An agent and a writer. Both times I told them what I wrote, and what my plan was to get published, and asked their advice.

The agent, who didn't rep my genre asked to see the manuscript saying if she liked it, she would pass it on to another agent at her agency who did rep my genre.

The author (who I met by attending a workshop she ran) gave me the name of her agent.

I've not heard from either, but it proves that curtesy and professionalism pay off.

Simon Haynes said...

When someone wants me to read their MS I just offer advice (free, after all) E.g. If it's a fantasy, ask them if they've considered rewriting is as a western. If it's one book, tell them to make it a trilogy. If a trilogy, tell them they should trim it to one book.
Hey, it's all good practice, and after three or four suggestions from me they seem to stop asking.

Kristen King said...

"No" definitely works, and I love the long silences anonymous suggested, but I'm partial to these two:

1 - Look blankly at the requester and blink a few times. Then let realization dawn in your eyes before you begin laughing. Clap him on the back a few times while trying to catch your breath and say, "Oh, for a minute there I thought you were serious! Good lord I needed a laugh today--thanks!"

2 - "I'd be delighted to help you. My professional coaching services start at $175/hour. Why don't you give me a call at the office on Monday and we'll set up an appointment."