Why I Read Pascal’s Story (and why I won’t read yours)

I could be opening a can of worms here, but I’m going to talk about it anyway because it’s what I did for my writing this evening.

I fulfilled a long overdue social obligation. Namely, I gave someone a critique of a short story and made some suggestions on which magazines to send it to, and how to prepare the manuscript.

Now before you start firing up your e-mail programs and attaching manuscripts for my perusal, let me stress one thing: I do not accept manuscripts of any kind for any reason from anyone. Any attempt on your part to send such a thing will result only in scorn and derision from me, so don’t even think it, okay?

It’s not because I’m Mister High and Mighty Writer or anything like that. It’s because we live in such a litigious world. In fact, any other writer of note has exactly the same policy. If you don’t believe me, check out what the beloved Stephen King has to say about looking at manuscripts from people. You might think you have produced a uniquely original manuscript about left-handed lesbian terrorist nuns threatening the world with a chronosynopticon… but what if I happen to be working on the same kind of project? And what if my book comes out after you’ve sent me your manuscript? What are you going to think? Are you going to believe me if I tell you it was just a coincidence?

After all, there are only 37 basic plots in the world (I believe the actual title of the book is “The Thirty-Seven Dramatic Situations”). And when you add archetypes into the mix – you know, those fun literary themes that show you how The Wizard of Oz equals The Lord of the Rings equals Star Wars equals The Matrix the odds decrease, and heavens, I should get my chronosynopticon novel finished before Tom Clancy finishes his…

So if I don’t take stories to look at, why did I look at this one? It’s the exception that proves the rule. It was written by the son of one of my oldest friends. And let me tell you this: I’m glad I got to see this story because the kid is good. Which means the more he writes, the better he will get. If you’re into hard SF, you’re going to be buying his novels someday, so remember this name: Pascal Clark. Meantime, unless your relationship with me goes back to 1969 or 1970, or you have a direct blood relationship with someone who does, hang onto your manuscript.

“But golly,” you might wail, “how can I get an opinion on something I’ve written.”

The same way other pros did – and some pros still do – with a writer’s group.

Just take care of what kind of writer’s group you join. Find one that’s compatible with the kind of writing you’re doing. Believe me, I know how important this is. When I was in one in the small Wyoming town where I grew up, I didn’t have a choice. There I was, an aspiring writing of near future thrillers, going to meetings with a bunch of… how can I put this delicately? Mature women whose primary interest in life was writing poems for magazines that paid in copies. My relationship with them ended when I read them a particularly descriptive chapter from ADOH that I had recently finished and was quite proud of. When I finished reading and saw them all sitting there slack jawed in horror, I knew that the group had outlived its usefulness to me. I wasn’t much on critiquing doggerel anyway, so I quit going.

If you’re reading this, you have Internet access, and that is a haven for writer’s groups. I was in a writer’s group on CompuServe that I liked; they had a message board and chats on Thursday nights. I only left it because I changed to a local ISP. More recently I thought about joining one incognito, but never did. The one I had my eye on seemed to be dedicated more toward members flaming each other than actual productive writing.

So choose your place carefully. And remember that, like Christmas, with writer’s groups it is more blessed to give than receive… so be ready to read and critique your share of work.

And if you’re not into that, then be willing and prepared to work in a vacuum. A lot of writers do.

Anyway, tonight I read Pascal’s story and sent my advice and opinions back. Hopefully he will tell me when he has had some luck in placing the story, and I’ll pass it along.

In other news, people have told me they haven’t been able to reach me via Yahoo! Messenger when it’s showing that I’m online. I may have to install AIM Remote instead. We’ll see.

NP – Joe Jackson, Summer in the City

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