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Fiona Snyckers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Free To A Good Home

I’ve read two blog posts that made me uncomfortable recently. Okay, not that recently. I’ve actually been meaning to get to this for a while.

The first was I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script by screenwriter Josh Olson, that appeared in the Village Voice. The second was Payment Now by Book SA member Fred de Vries. Both posts were warmly received when they came out. The general consensus was that the authors had hit their respective nails firmly on the head.

Olson’s post is a clever and articulate rant about how people who ask professional writers to look over their manuscripts are guilty of a massive breech of etiquette and ought to be tossed into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. His succinct description of those who make this request is ‘dick’:

“Yes. That’s right. I called you a dick. Because you created this situation. You put me in this spot where my only option is to acquiesce to your demands or be the bad guy. That, my friend, is the very definition of a dick move.”

He goes on to explain that asking a writer to give away free writerly advice is tantamount to asking a surgeon to operate on you for free, or a lawyer to give you free legal advice. Totally unacceptable, in other words.

Olson’s post was greeted with a storm of delighted approval from the writing community. My reasons for not joining in the general chorus of assent were connected to an experience I had years ago when I was living in Oxford. I’ve written about this in a previous post.

Briefly, I wrote to Whitbread Award-winner Barbara Trapido asking her for advice about where to send a manuscript I’d recently completed. She responded by not only introducing me to her own literary agent, but inviting me to send her the novel so that she could have a look at it as well. A few weeks later I received in the post a five-page, handwritten critique of my novel that I cherish to this day.

Now, I can’t pretend to have been blase about this at the time. I was quite simply astounded that she would give up her time to help out an utterly unknown writer like this. But it’s only now, years later, when I’m a published writer myself (albeit on not nearly such a distinguished scale), that I realise the full extent of what she did for me. I get asked to look at people manuscripts all the time, so I know intimately and precisely what a pain in the butt it is.

But here’s the thing. I do it.

I do it because I know damn well I’m not a surgeon or a lawyer or a nuclear freaking physicist. I didn’t study for seven long years to get where I am today. I’m just a hack who got lucky. And a lot of that luck had to do with the self-belief instilled in me years ago by one astonishingly generous writer.

The Botswanan author Lauri Kubuitsile told me recently that writers who do manuscript assessments for free are basically snatching bread from the mouths of their colleagues who offer the same service professionally. Her tongue was firmly in her cheek as she said this, but she had a very good point nonetheless. There are those who make a living from assessing manuscripts, and it’s not fair to undercut them. But a simple read-through and a handful of encouraging words won’t put anyone out of business, and are not that hard to muster. They might just make all the difference to someone who is really struggling.

The Fred de Vries post can be summed up as follows: those who ask writers to contribute pieces for free – whether it be to newspapers, magazines, or charity anthologies – have one helluva cheek. And we as authors ought to ignore all such offers unless they come with an offer of payment attached.

As an inveterate contributor of Free Stuff to various publications, I can only remind him that there is always someone younger and hungrier than you who will snatch those precious column inches away while you dither about remuneration. De Vries pours scorn on the idea that writers should just be greateful for any exposure and not ask for payment as well. But unfortunately that’s just the way it is, at least in South Africa.

Poet and cultural commentator Rustum Kozain said on Twitter today that there are virtually more writers in South Africa than there are readers. He may have been joking, but he wasn’t far wrong. Our reading public is so tiny it can barely be seen with the naked eye. There are hordes of us competing for slices of an extremely small pie. Anything that brings you to the attention of the public is a Good Thing, with the possible exception of extravagant, double-page scandals in Heat magazine.

We South African writers need to get over ourselves and realise that we are not some rare and precious dying breed. There are younger, more ambitious, and vastly more talented writers snapping at our heels every moment of the day. They’re just waiting for us to pass up an opportunity so they can snatch it up triumphantly and run away with it.

And if that same young writer just happens to be one whose manuscript you snootily disdained to take a look at five years ago, don’t expect him to have mercy on your redundant ass.

(PS – Puh-leeze don’t send me any more manuscripts to read. Honestly, I’m really busy at the moment. Like really, REALLY busy.)

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://www.jassymackenzie.com" rel="nofollow">Jassy</a>
    Jassy
    July 14th, 2010 @09:18 #
     
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    I would kill for an extravagant, double page scandal in Heat magazine. In fact, I have considered doing so. After all, look what all that PR did for Joost's sales!

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  • <a href="http://www.sapartridge.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    Sally
    July 14th, 2010 @09:25 #
     
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    Hi Fiona

    You're not alone in this. I also jump at the chance when the opportunity to write something for any publication arises. And yes Jassy, that includes Heat.

    Maybe one day when I'm uber successful and living in a Bishops Court mansion purchased from my royalties I'll consider charging for my services.

    Till that happy day, I'm more than okay with doing it for a contributors copy and bragging rights.

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  • <a href="http://louisgreenberg.com" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    July 14th, 2010 @09:54 #
     
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    Eloquently put, Fiona.

    Re free assessments, It was an unexpectedly encouraging response from a might-have-been-too-busy-to-bother publisher which really started me thinking that I could 'be a writer'. But for me the question is moot, I just don't have the time. Plus nobody's really asked me - I might seem like someone who will put in the boot before a good word. Probably right.

    Re unpaid submissions. Bwahahaha - I just got 24 writers to make Home Away, a fabulous, illuminating collection, for zero cents each. It's the best anthology I've ever read. That's how we make art. If we do it for money first of all, we're doing it for the people who pay the money. That's not art, that's something else. Propaganda. Advertising. Writing for free, for fun, for light; that's art that asks questions, that offers answers.

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  • <a href="http://www.modjajibooks.co.za" rel="nofollow">Colleen</a>
    Colleen
    July 14th, 2010 @10:32 #
     
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    And few minutes after agreeing to let the next round of royalties for my story in HomeAway go to the deserving, there in my Inbox was a request to republish my story in the September O magazine and get paid for it...

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  • <a href="http://www.sapartridge.co.za" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    Sally
    July 14th, 2010 @10:42 #
     
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    Congratulations and woohoo for karma

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    July 14th, 2010 @11:13 #
     
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    Colleen, that's amazing! Fifi, I have mixed feelings about all this... I'm with Louis and Sally on the unpaid submissions, with the huge proviso that I do not then want that work pinched and placed elsewhere, on the basis that because I gave it free to X, it's fair game for any old Y.

    But on the MS assessments (the great will I read yr effing script debate), my responses are much more complex. Yes, I am a writer. But I earn a living assessing and editing MSS. That's my day job, and while it's not brain surgery, I'm good at it because of decades of experience and education. People who ask me to do some of my day job (which pays the rent, the medical aid, the insurance etc) for free are making it harder for me to pay my rent, my insurance etc. Even when I say no, because saying no is hard (sometimes I find it agonising), and it takes time and tact.

    Just last week, a friend and I spent literally hours looking at a truly dire-beyond-belief MS sent to my pal for editing, trying to work out how to most tactfully tell the writer it was utterly unpublishable and uneditable. Together we crafted a detailed response full of helpful suggestions (do a writing course, read more widely in yr chosen genre etc). For all our (unpaid) hand-wringing, we got a one-line reply: "Thanks, but I've already decided to go ahead and self-publish without editing." SIGH.

    And yet I still do free assessments, sometimes on a quid pro quo basis, esp for young broke writers trying to break into the game. I do so in memory of the three or four top scholars in my field at Princeton who read my 350-page PhD thesis for love, who wrote comments that like Fifi, I treasure to this day. With hindsight, I am in awe at their dedication. But I also acknowledge that they were being paid handsome salaries.

    But dearest Fifi, there is one thing I must take issue with: your words "a simple read-through and a handful of encouraging words won’t put anyone out of business, and are not that hard to muster". Yikes. This plays into the myth that there is such a thing as a quick read-through, that's it's easy to dash off a few comments. It takes me at least two days to do a "quick read-through" of an unpublished MS. It takes me at least three or four hours to put together constructive comments. (This is partly my fault -- if I am to comment on something representing as much blood, sweat, tears and hope as an unpublished MS, I HAVE to do it properly.) And this does put me out of business. And I do gnash my teeth when folk ask me for "just a quick look and some comments, it won't take 5 minutes", because I am congenitally unable to do the job in minutes or even hours...

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    July 14th, 2010 @22:43 #
     
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    I just reread yr piece -- Fifi, I note that you asked Barbara Trapido for advice. To which she responded with huge generosity, offering to look at your MS.

    I'm with you on free advice. I do believe the older and luckier among us are required to dole it out all the time, and to do so cheerfully. One of the most blissful things about Book SA is that I can direct queries to various posts myself and others have written, a round-up of great advice. Making encouraging noises is easy, doesn't cost, and earns a place in heaven.

    What you didn't do, however, was to write to BT out of a clear blue sky asking her to please read and comment on yr MS. If (hypothetically) you had done so, and she had said "No", my hunch is that you would have retired in mortification. You would NOT have pressed your case. (I've had total strangers get quite indignant when I've declined.) A good rule of etiquette for novice writers: ask for advice by all means, float your MS out into the world, but then wait for someone to OFFER to read it. This was the point where I empathized with the "I will not read your script" guy.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    July 15th, 2010 @07:50 #
     
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    You make lots of great points Helen. I think you and Louis belong to a different category of writer because you make a livelihood from editing and assessing manuscripts. You are professionals and that is your day job. Anyone who expects you to offer your services for free is taking a liberty.

    But for someone like me who isn't qualified at anything in particular, and just happened to strike it lucky in getting published, it's not the same. I once benefited from someone's generosity, and feel compelled in turn to help out where I can.

    But you're right - I most certainly did not even imply to Barbara Trapido that she should take a look at my ms. Just the thought makes me break out in a cold sweat. All I was asking for was a suggestion of a publisher or agent I could send it to. The generosity all came from her side.

    And yes, there are those who push the boundaries of good manners to a quite astonishing extent, and I don't think they're owed any particular favours. We need to protect ourselves from those who would encroach on our good nature. I've had occasion to do so very recently. But to make a hard and fast rule that you will never look at something someone has written (as Josh Olson does) seems to me unnecessarily mean-spirited.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    July 15th, 2010 @15:54 #
     
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    I can see both sides to this. I am amazed how often people want me to do things for them when I am so small time I'm almost no time. What on earth happens to people who have made it? My mind boggles.

    But no doubt about it, the few kind words, a magazine giving me a chance - it has meant the world. Never mind a full fledged editor giving me her services in exchange for a thank you and a fist full of book vouchers. That was a gift of a lifetime. Which makes me feel obliged to be kind to those I can.

    But there are awkward moments, especially how oblivious people are to how much work is already done by a writer for free. "What percentage do I get if I give you this lead?" Um, you can have all of the nothing I get. There are many people who really do believe that writing always equals big bucks.

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