Want feedback on your writing? Share it with a writer you admire. Just do your homework first.
In this post, Max Sheridan talks about all the dumb things he's done as a writer, which he hopes will serve as shining examples of what not to do for other writers, but also remind them of all the little happy moments along the way that make it all worthwhile.
The dumb things I've done
I’ve blundered through just about every facet of professional writing imaginable. I once sent a thousand-page manuscript to an unsuspecting publisher in Minnesota in a box that looked just like the one Kevin Spacey used to send Gwyneth Paltrow’s head to Brad Pitt in in Seven.
I’ve gotten pissy with well-meaning agents and submitted unhinged flash fiction to top-notch lit magazines until they asked me to stop. (They never actually did. I just didn’t have the dedication to continue pestering them.) As retribution against another publisher who refused to return my emails, under a pseudonym I submitted a plot idea so grotesque I was almost guaranteed a visit from the FBI.
I’ve even sent unsolicited manuscripts to writers whose work I liked.
I have, and looking back I don’t regret it. Not all of it.
One of my manuscripts ended up in Little Rock, Arkansas, at the address of a man I’m almost one hundred percent certain was Charles Portis, my literary idol. Not that I expected him to read the thing, just to respond to my heartfelt fan letter. That never happened.
Sometimes, when I think of the package I sent to Portis, I’m convinced it must have ended up at the wrong Charles Portis’ house, and that that Portis must have kept it, but not knowing what to do with it, just left it on his shelf or mantelpiece, possibly as a conversational crutch at parties. “And that book there someone just sent me.”
My advances have been rebuffed, sometimes pretty harshly. But how can you blame them? Asking someone to read your unpublished book is a significant intrusion into most busy writers’ lives, possibly even a loathsome one. Then again, when I put myself in the hypothetical shoes of the great imposed-upon writer, I think, “Hell, I’d at least read the first chapter.” I think I would.
George Singleton read a novel of mine. This was my greatest triumph as a literary busker. He was actually wonderfully kind and down-to-earth. He not only read the book but gave me a list of published novels whose agents he thought I should get in touch with. Sadly, he couldn’t put me in touch with his own agent because he’d just died, a good enough excuse.
Throughout all of these up and downs, I’d always stuck to one principle. If you’re going to bother a writer, do your homework. Read a book or two of theirs. Check out their website. Know who you’re writing to.
I’d stuck to this general principle of needling established writers until the day I bothered Roy Blount Jr.
Roy Blount Jr. I never read. To this day I couldn’t name one of his many books. He was a comic and storyteller and, I think, an amateur linguist. He was also a big fan of Charles Portis, which meant that without knowing each other from holes in the wall he and I were united by an unspoken literary kinship.
To understand this lunatic way of thinking, you need to be familiar with the cult of Portis. The cult of Portis is a little like the cult of Dylan in so far as both men are loved by many who consider themselves a tiny thirteenth tribe of literary explorers, each of whom knows the master better than the next.
Anyway, Blount Jr. liked Portis, so I liked Blount Jr.
The night I contacted Roy Blount Jr. I’d been drinking. At that period in my life I was almost as bad as my grandmother, who popped out of closets like a cuckoo at the stroke of five with a Martini shaker. I’d probably had a gin and tonic or two and I’d also just gotten paid for my first story. $25 dollars from Todd Robinson at Thuglit.
I sent the email to Blount Jr. at five o'clock sharp, and I swear Blount Jr.’s secretary answered me at ten past. She’d forwarded my request to Mr. Blount himself.
I went out and had a hamburger.
When I got back, Roy Blount Jr. had answered.
Mr Sheridan, I'm sorry but I can't encourage anyone to send me his or her novel. Good luck with it.
I guess it's what I’d expected.
But it didn't stop me. I'd already gotten through the roadblock. I just needed to come up with a very good reason for Blount Jr. to take me seriously, a funny, provocative, original point of entry into Blount’s good graces that he would be repeating at dinner parties for years to come like that other Charles Portis who had my book.
I did a quick once-over of Blount’s website, and there it was staring me right in the face. I noticed a tab that said Rock Bottom Remainders. I couldn’t have been any luckier if Charles Portis had fed me that information himself. As a ploy, I would just offer to buy several copies of each and every one of Blount’s remaindered books if he didn’t think my novel was the funniest he’d read in five years.
To score extra points, I even compared my book to the work of Portis himself, suggesting that with Portis on his deathbed and not likely to produce another masterpiece any time soon, this would be Blount’s last chance—Blount was an old man too—to read something as good as Portis in his lifetime. It was a subtle nod at Blount’s own mortality, just the kind of thing he’d appreciate. The fact that Roy Blount Jr. would be peddling his own books at staggering discounts on his own website didn’t cheapen him for me at all. In fact, I kind of liked him more for it. This was the writer's life.
I whipped off that email in one minute flat.
The response came directly from Blount’s iPad this time, which meant I'd hit the jackpot.
Here is what it said.
I am not unloading my "back stock." So there goes that.
This threw me for a loop. I went back to Blount Jr.’s website and took a closer look at the Rock Bottom Remainders. This time I actually clicked on the link.
Here are the Rock Bottom Remainders, in alphabetic order: Dave Barry, Tad Bartimus, Roy Blount, Jr., Michael Dorris, Robert Fulghum, Kathi Kamen Goldmark , Matt Groening, Josh Kelly, Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Ridley Pearson, Joel Selvin, and Amy Tan.
I’m sure you recognize at least one musician on that list. The Rock Bottom Remainders wasn’t Blount’s back stock, it was a group of successful aging writers who played music in their free time and even performed concerts.
In between the gin and tonic that had launched the original email to Blount Jr. and this final response, I’d gone out, eaten a hamburger and drunk a beer or two, all on $25. I was well lubricated and not feeling at all like like the total idiot I was. Blount Jr. wouldn’t have read my book anyway, I thought. At least now we both had a story.
I can’t deny I take some pleasure in the fact that my version of the story is funny in the telling, while Blount Jr. probably just complained about some rube who thought he sold his own books on his website. But there is always the possibility that Stephen King heard that story too.
As for the advice I’d give anyone seriously thinking about sending unsolicited manuscripts to their literary idols or their helpers, go ahead. Shoot your babies like skipping stones across the ocean. Just don’t expect much back, and don’t drink while you’re sending those emails.
Unless you’re writing to Roy Blount Jr. In that case, drink one for me too.
Max Sheridan is still making dumb mistakes daily. His writing, meanwhile, has appeared in a number of online and print publications in the US, UK and elsewhere. He's worked as a teacher, journalist, editor and copywriter. He's the founder and director of Write CY, a Nicosia-based platform for creative writing and community storytelling, where he teaches Story Craft, a 10-week short story writing course. His novel Dillo was released by Shotgun Honey in December 2017. Talk to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.