Every Friday I turn this blog into a couch and invite Dr. Sue O’Doherty to offer up writerly therapy. If you have any questions, please email her at Dr.Sue at Mindspring.com.
She also occasionally gives workshops and seminars in her Brooklyn Heights office on topics of interest to writers. If you would like to be notified about upcoming events, email her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.
IF I LET MY FIRE GO OUT, HOW CAN I WARM MY NEIGHBOR?
Dear Dr. O'Doherty:
Now that I am a successful author of four novels, people write to me each week asking my advice, asking for support, asking me to mentor them, or help them rewrite their manuscripts, or tell them how to get an agent or a book contract. I'd like to help them all, having been there myself not so long ago, but if I did I would never have time to attend to my own writing. Yet I know I am disappointing or even infuriating each one of them when I say I cannot read the manuscript or provide a great deal of advice or make an introduction to an agent or function as a mentor. What's the solution?
You have outlined some very important reasons why you can’t help everyone, and why it would be a bad idea to try.
Naturally, you don’t want to simply abandon all emerging writers. Authors are acutely aware that talent and persistence will get them only so far in today’s competitive market. It is also necessary to be lucky, and luck often takes the form of the extended hand of someone who has made it a little farther along the path. Of course you want to pass on some of the help that you benefited from.
There is middle ground between pulling the ladder up behind you and exhausting yourself to the detriment of your work. To find the balance that works for you, it’s necessary to identify the type of help you feel comfortable giving and the amount of time you can spare, and to stick with these limits.
Think about the kinds of help you are asked to give. Do any of these strike you as more interesting (or less burdensome) than others? Perhaps you enjoy helping new writers connect with agents or literary journals, but find reading manuscripts too wearing and distracting from your own work. Or you may be a fine teacher of advanced students but have no patience for beginners—or you may be most sympathetic to struggling writers who are economically or educationally deprived, and resent the demands of those who have many resources. Whatever your individual bent is, refine it as closely as possible. Decide on one activity you are willing to “donate,” and identify your chosen recipients.
Think about the amount of time you realistically have to give. If you are one of the lucky few who are able to treat novel writing as a full time job—that is, if your days are not filled with copyediting, writing-for-hire, or unrelated-day-job work, you can afford to be more generous than if you have only one or two precious days out of the week to spend on your novels. But even if you do have to parcel out your time carefully, chances are you can carve out a few hours a week, or a month, to help other writers along. (If your work includes teaching writing, you are probably already overloaded with requests that you feel obligated to fulfill but are not being compensated for, so you may want to skip down to the last paragraph.)
Whatever you decide your time limit is, keep track of your hours and don’t be seduced into overriding them. (Of course, you may wish to put in extra time on a particularly interesting project, and there may be weeks when you need to concentrate only on your writing—but make sure the hours even out over the course of the year.)
In this way, when you are approached by a well-meaning newbie who doesn’t have a clue as to the amount of work she is asking of you when she requests that you read and critique her manuscript, or when he wants you to help him find an agent or publisher, you will have the tools at hand to give what help you can while protecting both your time and your fan’s feelings. You can say, for example, “I really can’t read manuscripts, but if you’ll describe your book to me I’ll be glad to get back to you in a few weeks with thoughts about where to submit it,” or “I’d love to help you, but I have promised two other authors to read their books. I take this work seriously and do a thorough job, and I don’t want to make you wait a year or more for a critique.” (Be careful, though, in dealing with writers you don’t know well. If you suggest querying an agent or journal, make it clear that you are not offering to recommend the writer’s work if you’re not prepared to do so. And for an eye-opening account of the perils of reading the manuscripts of strangers, check out Tess Gerritsen’s blog post, "How Dare You Not Read My Manuscript?”.)
If necessary, blame a third party: “My agent has forbidden me to read any more manuscripts/spend any more time away from my WIP/take on another student”; “My family threatened to stage a demonstration if I miss another dinner to work with a new author”; or insert the scapegoat of your choice.
If, despite your tact and reasonableness, the writers you turn down are “infuriated,” keep in mind that these are not people who are likely to benefit from your help. You do have an obligation to help struggling writers, but no individual writer has the right to demand your attention and assistance. You are the only one qualified to decide how much you can give, and to whom. Anyone who takes offense at your reminder that you are a human being with limited time and energy and with legitimate needs of her own is not worth your attention and would only cause trouble later down the line.
Susan O’Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A well-published author herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.