When I was in high school and had high hopes of securing a promising, fulfilling career, I sought advice from a mentor. At the time I was interested in broadcasing and she was a radio DJ. She gave me a tour, showed me what all of the buttons on the board did and answered all the questions I had, no matter how mundane. In short, she took valuable time out of her day to provide guidance to a struggling kid with a squeaky voice which prevented her from ultimately making a living on the airwaves. But I never forgot her kindness.
Perhaps it’s because of those warm memories, I try to do the same. Of course the main difference being that I try to warn young graduates away from my career path rather than encouraging them. Seriously, when someone who has read The Subway Chronicles (usually a friend of my mother’s) asks for advice about getting an agent or reading a synopsis they’ve written, I try to oblige.
True, it can be time consuming. True, I don’t have legions of people asking me these “how do I get started” questions. True, I know many writers don’t really want to hear the truth, no matter how much they say they want an honest opinion. True, most of them won’t take my advice or are possibly upset I couldn’t offer a direct introduction to an editor. I still think it’s important to pay it forward.
There are many people who’ve done it for me. Friends who’ve no doubt stayed up past their bedtimes to read pages I’ve proffered with request for feedback. People who’ve offered nuggets of advice about a publishing business that seems consumed with how well you’re connected rather than how well you write. Sometimes when you’re slogging away in the trenches for years it can seem that no one is willing to give you a break. (You know the catch-22 about the editor who won’t look at your work unless you have clips to show. But how are you to get the clips if the editor won’t print your work?) Everyone got their start from someone who was willing to take the time and a chance.
How quickly people who have achieved great success forget, specifically screenwriter Josh Olson, who has declared in a Village Voice blog, “I will not read your fucking script.” He laments that he has been asked to read an acquaintance’s 2-page synopsis of a potential screenplay and provide feedback.
It turns out that the synopsis in question is not very good. Olson is pained (but not really) in how to tell the truth to the guy and takes hours to craft the appropriate gentle response. And, yeah, yeah, we’ve all heard the Picasso story Olson points to in his post. I sympathize (probably more than Olson for I assume he gets paid well for his work. And the definition of “well” is that you can keep a roof over your head from the money you make writing.) Only in the creative fields are people asked to work for little to no money. How many writers have spent years toiling away at their novels to get a $7,500 advance. Let’s see…I spent about 1,000 hours writing, researching and editing my novel, so that works out to less than minimum wage. Great!
Olson is frustrated by how many such requests he gets, so he says, “… it is, in fact, you who are the dick in this situation, please read on. 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.”
How about this? If you don’t want/have time to read a synopsis, then (pardon my French) grow a set of balls and just say no. No, I’m sorry. I am swamped with work and cannot possibly take on another project at this time. There. Was that so hard?
But still…someone gave Olson a chance. Maybe he’s the hardest working man in the business, but someone took the time out of their day to pluck him from obscurity, opened doors for him, helped him along. I doubt a contract fell out of the sky and landed in his lap. There are people he would thank if he accepts an Oscar someday. Here’s a novel idea: be thankful and flattered you have such requests. Because just as quickly as the doors opened, they can be slammed in your face.