by Tess Gerritsen
It finally happened to me. Last week, while my husband and I were dining out at a restaurant, a complete stranger approached and handed me his manuscript.
I should have known something was up when the chocolate cheesecake appeared at our table. I don’t normally eat sweets, yet here was this luscious dessert that neither of us had ordered. The waitress smiled and said, “That’s for you, courtesy of the gentleman at the bar.” Turning, I saw a man waving at me. About halfway through our meal, I had noticed him walk into the restaurant, carrying a briefcase, and had been vaguely aware that he’d been watching us. Since I have a horrible memory for faces, I assumed this was someone I knew — or at least should recognize — so I smiled as he came over to our table.
Then he pulled a manuscript out of his briefcase and said, “I know you’re probably really, really busy. But I was hoping I could give you my manuscript.”
At which point I glanced across at my husband, who had that oh-my-god-I-can’t-believe-the-nerve look on his face. But there was that chocolate cheesecake, already half-eaten on our table. And there was that hopeful smile on the man’s face. And then there’s me, Tess Gerritsen, the wuss, who always wants to be polite and cooperative.
So I took his manuscript.
As my husband said on the way home, “I guess this means you’ve really and truly made it.” And we came to the rather unsettling realization that the man had to know I was already there before he even walked into the place. Who walks around everywhere with a manuscript, expecting to run into some random writer? We had walked into that restaurant without reservations, so someone there must have spotted me, called the writer to tell him I was dining there that night, and he grabbed his manuscript and rushed over to find me. Does that sound paranoid? Okay, so it does. But I don’t know how else to explain it.
I’m sure other published authors have encountered similar situations. Most of the time it happens at book-signings, when some stranger approaches your table, and instead of wanting you to sign a copy of your latest book, he wants you to take his manuscript. I’m pretty good at saying no in that situation, because I’m ready for it. My guard is up. But other times, we’re just not expecting it. When a friend slips you his unpublished novel at a cocktail party, for instance. Or you get an email from an old classmate you haven’t heard from in years. Or your dentist says, while he’s drilling your root canal, “Would you mind looking at my novel?”
I’m reminded of one of the funniest scenes from the film “Shakespeare in Love,” where Will Shakespeare is being rowed across the river by a hired boatman. And as Will climbs out, the boatman calls out: “Will you read my manuscript?” There isn’t a writer alive who didn’t roar with laughter at that, because it probably happens to all of us.
And I understand why it happens. Breaking into this business is a tough, tough thing. Aspiring authors are desperate. They think that if they just knew the right person, got their work into just the right hands, success would smile upon them. And so they shove manuscripts at us in restaurants, under restroom stalls, toss them over our gates, slip them into our mailboxes.
The problem is, this almost never gets them any closer to success. I try to explain to them that I’m not being a meanie, it’s just that I’m not the one who makes the decision to publish a novel. I’m just a writer. I’m not an agent or editor. They’re the ones with the power.
Agents and editors don’t necessarily listen to our opinions anyway. There’ve been only two instances where I came across writers of real talent, whose work really impressed me. Both times, it happened at writing workshops. I loved what they’d done, and I asked my agent to give them a little attention.
She declined to represent either one of them. She just wasn’t excited about their manuscripts. (And that’s how much influence I have.)
Handing over your manuscript to a mere writer isn’t getting it into the hands of the people who really matter. It’s agents and editors who need to read and love your work. If you read the dedications in my books, you’ll know who my literary agent is. So submit your manuscript to her, not to me. (Sorry, Meg.)
As for that manuscript I got in the restaurant, it’s still sitting here in my office, on top of a stack of galleys. Will I read it? Maybe. But I’m already pretty sure it’s not going to float my boat. Whenever manuscripts come to me via some wacky, unofficial route, they are almost guaranteed to be unimpressive.