22 June 2020

A Matter of Trust

A few weeks ago, a novice writer reached me through my web site. He said he went to the high school where I taught, but I never knew him. He told me had done "lots of research" on a crime or crimes in our city and wanted me to help him turn it into a real book.

The email had lots of problems. First, he attached a word doc instead of simply writing the message. I suspected he was recycling the letter, but most of it was specifically aimed at me. He said his MS was 100K words long, but I couldn't tell if he had a non-fiction book or a novel, and it makes a difference because my comfort zone is fiction.

I asked a few questions for clarification and told him to send me a five-page synopsis of his entire MS, then a one-page synopsis of each of the three shorter sections he identified in his first message. I warned him that was very difficult, but I needed a clearer overview of what he had. He also mentioned podcasts, and I said if that was his choice, it might be a good idea, but he needed a scriptwriter or someone with more experience in radio. I quoted an estimate and told him that could change when I knew more, and that I wouldn't commit yet.

The next day, he replied and made my decision easy. He said his lawyer wanted me to sign a one-year non--disclosure agreement for our work together. I told him he had just closed the negotiations.

Everything in the creative arts, especially writing, is about trust, and the non-professionals don't get that. If you send a query or manuscript to an editor or agent, don't put the copyright symbol on it. They aren't going to steal it for several reasons, lawsuits and a ruined reputation topping the list. They have to keep working with other people, remember? Besides, if they can't do better than something they find in the slush pile, they're in the wrong business anyway.

Do session musicians sign an ADA before performing on someone else's recording? Do museum curators sign one before displaying someone's painting or sculpture? Do actors sign one while rehearsing the first production of a play, when the playwright may still be revising the script as they go along?

Nope, nope and nope.

The same is true of writers to agents, editors, and readers. Writers ask people to read their work, so they have to create something worth a reader's time and effort. A reader doesn't pick up a book to be bored by stale plots, cliched characters, or mountains of description. That's why editors and agents reject such submissions. The publishers trust them to bring quality (salable) products to the table, and if they betray that trust, it goes away.

Agents and editors read enough so they remember something good when they see it, especially when they see it again. Yes, we hear stories about plagiarism, but they're rare, especially with a well-known writer as either the victim or the perpetrator. There's too much at stake to take such a stupid risk.

I used to teach senior English classes with students who read four to six years below grade level. I always thought it was an oxymoron and that we should have helped those kids much sooner, but go figure. Those kids, who didn't know better, frequently handed in rap lyrics as their own poetry. They were always amazed when I caught them. They didn't understand that people who need a rubber stamp to spell their own name on the paper (Make sure it's right-side-up!) probably won't use a beautiful extended metaphor (Which they thought was a sports injury, anyway).

Those kids were trying to fool me, but it was how they tried to survive in a world where they'd been set up to fail. I never told them I found "their " poems by Googling the first line because I wanted to perpetuate the myth of the omniscient teacher. I made them rewrite the stuff into something more their own. These kids weren't aiming at Harvard or Oxford, they just wanted to get out of a really ugly building and find a full-time job. OK, no harm, no foul.

But it's different in the writing world, which is sort of like golf, where you call a penalty on yourself if you accidentally drag your club in the sand trap. There's a lot of money out there, but most of us aren't getting any of it, so it's all about the handshake and who buys the beer.

And, except on really bad days, not about the lawyers.


  1. A good piece. I suspect a good deal of the mistrust by amateurs comes from an inflated opinion of their work and grossly unrealistic expectations about the profitability of the written word.

  2. Good post, Steve. It's surprising how insecure young writers are--turning in plagiarized articles/essays/interviews that cannot possibly be their own work, and all the rest of it.

  3. Harlan Ellison has an essay somewhere about how he wanted to give up on being a guest speaker to creative writing classes because the questions were never about the craft. They were always about the money end of the business, and always asked by people who hadn't actually written much yet but assumed that was the easy part.

  4. Steve, I've never been in that situation, but I have had people tell me I've got a great idea / plot for a story / book! All you have to do is write it, and we'll split the proceeds 50-50! WRONG. And I've had history students turn in papers that were straight off of the internet and, like you said, all I had to do was type in the first line, and there it was...

  5. Eve. Same here. I have gotten it since the day my first police novel came out in 1988, usually from fellow cops or former cops. I got this great story. You can write it and we'll split it 50/50. The one that was hard to turn down was my elderly aunt who accumulated about 100 stories about our family and was putting it together and told me I'll have a lot of editing to do with that one. I reminded her she had eight grown children who could help her. I was in the middle of a novel. Several family members got mad at me. I was a writer, after all, and our family was so interesting the book was bound to sell. I told them our family wasn't interesting. Oh, well. Such is life.

    Good post, Steve.

  6. Great post! Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  7. Janice is right– We think too highly of our masterpiece in our early days.

    And as Joseph says, it's often just about the money. A marriage counselor acquaintance mentioned a family on the verge of breaking up. The young wife wanted to flee husband and home for Hollywood to fulfill her life's dream. The therapist asked her if this was all about fame, fortune, and glory or a deep-seated thirst for the craft of acting. After a hesitation, the wannabe thespian claimed a need to act, but the counselor said it was pretty obvious that wasn't the case. Writing is no different.


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