Will you read my manuscript?

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  When a friend slips you his unpublished novel at a cocktail party, for instance.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.  




32 thoughts on “Will you read my manuscript?

  1. Jim Winter

    I hate to say this, because I’ve asked so many writer friends to look at mine, but my response is, "I charge $50 for every 25 pages, and an additional $50 to write a summary. Half due up front. Would you like to pay me by cash, check, or PayPal?"

    Mind you, no one’s exactly swarming me for manuscript crit, but I’ve got enough going on already that has nothing to do with writing.

  2. Dana King

    Assuming I had the presence of mind to remember, i think i would have paid him for the cheesecake and politely told him I can’t read unsolicited manuscripts for legal reasons; can’t run the risk of being sued for plagiarism or stealing the idea. If he persisted, I might–politely–put him n the spot by asking how he knew I was there? Was he following me? let him know the awkward position he’d put me in, hopefully without shaming him publicly.

    I can’t imagine asking a writer I didn’t know to read something for me, even a short. An author friend has volunteered to look at the WIP when it’s ready, and it’s going to be hard for me to ask when the time comes. Where do these people come from?

  3. Dave Zeltserman

    Come on, Tess. You accepted the guy’s manuscript, he was friendly, polite, and didn’t hold a gun to your head. At least read the first few pages.

    You’re right, of course, as authors we can’t do a lot to get someone published, but a blurb from a well-known writer can help get a manuscript noticed. I know Ken Bruen’s and Vicki Hendrick’s generously reading and providing blurbs for my then unpublished manuscript, Small Crimes helped convince my future editor at Serpent’s Tail to give the book a read. After selling them 3 more books I now know my editor and publisher’s taste very well, I know how ridiculously picky they are, so there’s precious little I would pass onto them. Recently, though, I did read a first author’s book that I thought was terrific and a good fit for them, passed it onto them, and they bought it, and you know, it’s a good feeling to help a talented struggling writer break in (btw. I was talking to an editor at a large NY house, and he had read this same book and concurred with me–thought it was one of the best crime novels he’s read of late, but it was deemed not big enough for his house).

    Tess, it is much much tougher today than when you broke in, and even far tougher than when I broke in only a couple of years ago. Let’s try to have some empathy for where these writers are coming from. If we accept something, we have an obligation to at least give it a look.

  4. tess gerritsen

    I wish I could personally help every brilliant unpublished writer who sends his novel my way. Unfortunately, there are far too many manuscripts being offered to me — and there’s also a stack of about eight galleys sitting here in my office that I haven’t had a chance to read, either. Because every minute of my day is spent trying to meet my upcoming deadline.

    The real problem I have in accepting such manuscripts is that so many are just not very good,and if I do read them, I’m left in the truly uncomfortable position of declining to support them. Then the author demands to know why I’m not helping them out. Then they get angry at me for not thinking it’s a work of art. And then I’m the bad guy for not recognizing their genius, and I’ve made an enemy for life.

    I suppose I could, just to be generous, automatically put a rubber stamp that says "Tess Gerritsen loves this!" on every unpublished manuscript , whether it’s good or bad. The end result would be that my opinion would mean nothing in the business.

    You can see why it’s far easier, emotionally and time-wise, to avoid taking on such manuscripts.

  5. caite

    What would bother me is not so much that someone wants you to read their manuscript..I can’t blame them for that…as much as that they approached you in a private moment. Not even at a book signing, where you are to a degree, the public person, doing your job. No, here you are out, having dinner, not best selling author Tess Gerritsen but private person Tess, in her real, every day life. That is just rude in my book.

    I have seen a number of ‘famous’ people in my life, often in NYC. Now it is one thing if they are working. At a performance, at an appearance of some sort. Yes, then I think it is fair to appraoch them, to say something to them, ask something of them, be it an autograph or whatever. Not that I do really, but I would consider it.
    But if they are in private person mode, walking down the street, eating with friends or family, then I think they should just be off limits. Hey, I might say to whoever is with me "Isn’t that…" but that is as far as it should go.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I remember when I was a kid my mom handed me Jack Klugman’s autograph. She had interrupted him while he and his wife were having an argument at a table in a restaurant in Santa Fe. My mom said that he gladly signed the napkin, while his wife stared daggers into the side of my mom’s face. I remember hearing the story and looking at the autograph on the napkin and wishing my mom had just left poor Mr. Klugman and his wife alone.
    I’ve already been getting a few manuscripts from friends and strangers and my journey in the book world has just begun. I’m used to it, however, because the film business creates an even greater sense of desperation for the screenwriter who seems to feel that the only thing standing between himself and a million dollars is the person he can get his script to. And, unfortunately, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that he is right. Of course, it’s a crap shoot. But occasionally there’s a fluke and the "dentist" becomes the next big thing.
    When I was a D-Guy I always had a few scripts from friends that I would provide notes on. It’s tough, because people don’t realize that reading and making notes on their work ends up eating the precious moments of our lives, taking time away from our families and our own writing obligations.

  7. tess gerritsen

    asking for an autograph isn’t so bad, since it only takes about two seconds of your time.

    But the six hours it takes to read and evaluate a manuscript is a whole work day!

  8. Sylvia

    Since I’ve never finished an entire manuscript – can’t say. Having finished a few chapters here and there – I’m not bashful about asking people I know for feedback – but also understand that time is critical in everyone’s life and I may not get a response. Luckily – I don’t write that much – ha ha ha.

    I’ve been in various places with celebs, authors, politicians and can’t imagine disrupting their activities – be it having dinner, shopping, playing with their kids in the park – for anything. I’d be equally annoyed.

  9. Louise Ure

    Tess, what an uncomfortable situation to be in. I, too, would probably have taken the manuscript, because I find it difficult to be blatantly rude to people even if they deserve it. And then I would have found a way to write the guy and say "I’m so sorry, but I find that I don’t have the time to be give your work the reading it deserves."

  10. Mark Terry

    Actually, Tess, this story creeps me out a bit. Maybe I keep my boundaries a little high and wide, but this guy was tripping over damn near everybody’s.

    I’m reminded vaguely of a local guy who wanted to buy multiple copies of my books and get them signed, which was fine and flattering, but he was so damned persistent about picking them up at my house that he made me really uneasy. I finally let him come over and it’s not like I’m not listed locally anyway, and he was harmless, but he definitely made my antenna quiver.

  11. Josephine Damian

    I knew an aspiring writer, a married gal who had sex with E.L. Doctorow’s hairdresser in order to find out when his next appointment was. Sure enough, when he came in she "just happened" to be sitting in the chair next to him.

    She asked him for writing advice. He said: Write what you know. So…. what do you know? She said: I know about sex. He said: So write about that.

  12. Marianne

    Hmm. This story creeps me out too. My husband is relatively famous in his business and it always makes us laugh when we encounter odd ‘fan moments’, but we have found the rare time when we too have been creeped out by a fan’s insistent demand that we show him/her our studio, etc. Since we also live there, I hate having strangers in our space and find someway of putting them off. We now have a separate studio to present to clients and do business in, so I feel somewhat better.

    Having said that, I’m still working on my paranormal mystery novel and the outlines of the subsequent sequels. 😀 I am hoping to pay a well known author I know to do an initial read through of the first draft to smooth any contextual gaffs I may have made. I’m an Aussie living in America, writing about my spiritual home, England. 😀 However, my protagonist is as well traveled as I am so I can throw the odd offsite reference in sometimes. Any comments on writing style or plot are welcome but not expected… I am working with another editor for that. 😀

    Meanwhile, back to writing the contracted non-fiction Ice Age book… Sigh.

    Cheers all,

  13. JD Rhoades

    John Scalzi actually invited people to tell him what a heartless bastard he is for not reading their manuscripts or otherwise putting himself out for total strangers here. It’s pretty funny.

  14. Sara J. Henry

    I’ve heard that an appropriate standard response is "I’m so sorry, but my agent doesn’t allow me to read other people’s manuscripts." (You’d hate to be slapped with a lawsuit about your next novel from someone who claims you got the idea from a manuscript they slipped you.)

    I do still read manuscripts for friends – and yes, have referred a writer to agent friends, who promptly offered representation, but I think reading for a stranger is a losing proposition, no matter what.

  15. pari noskin taichert

    Oh, Tess, how uncomfortable.

    I’ve had people try to give me their manuscripts before, but they were slight acquaintances . . . and I simply refused — and felt really horrible and mean and awful about it.

  16. toni mcgee causey

    I have read things for friends or for other writers I already admire who wanted a blurb. I have referred friends to agents when I knew their work was ready and I thought the agent was the right fit (and that worked in one case).

    I would not have accepted the manuscript from a stranger. This is someone who has not done his homework in business etiquette and how this business works. There is no way I’m going to help someone who thinks they don’t have to do their homework, that they don’t have to work hard at getting their manuscript read, like everyone else in the business.

    If it feels rude to simply say no, then hand the manuscript back and suggest some great online resources that the person should check out to see how things are done. I constantly refer people to Janet Reid’s website, as well as to Backspace, because Janet has sharp advice, succinctly written, and Backspace has a great community vibe where people can learn from each other, and enough published authors post there to help with Q & A. If people are dismissive of those suggestions, as if they’re above that, then they aren’t willing to put effort into their own career. And if they aren’t, why should I?

  17. Rob Gregory Browne

    Oh, my. My first thought wasn’t that someone spotted you and called this guy, but that this guy is stalking you. I’d be on the look-out, if I were you. And be careful.

    Aren’t people supposed to do their stalking by email these days?

  18. Allison Brennan

    Rob, that’s exactly what I thought. Well, the second thing I thought. The first thing was SECRET GARDEN, SECRET WINDOW by Stephen King.

    I don’t read uncontracted manuscripts. That might be mean, but between writing three books a year, raising five kids, and trying to read galleys which also have deadlines (and that’s TRY–I often can’t get to them by their deadline and make my own) I can’t do it. In addition, my agent strongly recommended that I don’t.

    I will sometimes offer a critique at a writers conference, but even then it’s usually with much arm-twisting . . . who am I to say what’s good and what’s bad? My opinion is no better or worse than anyone else’s opinion, except an agent or an editor. Like you said, they have power, I don’t. I have an opinion.

  19. Jessica Scott

    Hi Tess
    You bring up a great point and having been the person asking as well as having been asked but not being published, I’ve got a couple thoughts. First, I thought you handled the situation with grace for someone putting you in an awkward position. But I’ve emailed authors I’ve corresponded with and been told I can’t and I’m totally okay with that.

    As an unpublished author, I’ve had the good fortune of a couple of fantastic published authors take me under their wing. Since I asked for their opinion, I would be smart to listen to what they have to say. But if they can’t, that’s okay because believe me, I know its awkward to be asked but from the unpublished perspective, what’s the worst that could happen? You’ll say no and I’ll be no worse off (BTW, I don’t go around stalking authors and I’ve only asked a few:).

    I absolutely see your point about the unpublished guy getting irritated with you and blaming you, but that guy then isn’t ready to go. Because publishing is not about who you know or this or that. It’s about the book. A friend of mine helped me land my first agent. I was stunned said fab agent took me on but the bottom line is that she would not have taken me on merely as a favor.

    Here’s the thing to unpub’d authors: we’re like the blind leading the blind. As a published author, you’ve been able to write a book that caught someone attention, somewhere along the line. Most of the time, that’s all we’re looking for is a little insight from someone who knows. He should have realistic expectations, which, if he bought you cheesecake out of no where, I doubt.

    So you’re in an awkward position and you’ve been put there by weird writer guy. If I ask someone to read and they decline, I say thank you very much and that’s the end of it. And whatever they say when they get done, if they agree, I listen to. You could read a few pages and see what the guy has got, then make your recommendations. If he chooses to blame you and go on some hysterical rant, block his email. But you’ll have given him a precious little amount of your time that he just might learn something from.
    If you honestly can’t read it, speaking as an unpublished writer for whom the worst thing about publishing is the not knowing, drop him a note and explain why you can’t. If he’s professional, he’ll understand. And if he’s not, block his email:)
    Just my thoughts from sitting on the unpub’d side of the fence.
    Great, thought provoking post!

  20. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Tess

    OK, I’m feeling really REALLY guilty now, because you very generously agreed to blurb one of my books that’s coming out in the States next year, taking time away from your own deadlines to do so, and I didn’t even buy you desert … ;-[

    I was – and still am – incredibly grateful for your support and kind words. One of the things I love so much about the crime writing community in the States is the general pay-it-forwards approach. I wish we had a similar attitude over in the UK, but sadly it so often seems to be the way of it that people think they can get ahead by elbowing others out of their way, rather than giving them a leg up.

    I was also very grateful that you hadn’t read ‘History of Violence’ screenwriter’s Josh Olson’s blog in Village Voice, before I sent my grovelly email:


    (Not to be read by the faint-hearted, by the way.)

  21. tess gerritsen

    nothing of what I said applies to the author who’s already sold a manuscript and is merely seeking blurbs — I try to read as many of those as possible, even though I’m finding that I have less and less time for them. (btw, I loved your book!)

    What makes me uncomfortable is the unpublished author who hasn’t landed an agent or a publishing contract, and instead of sending it off to an agent/editor, believes that the shortcut is through an author. Those are the manuscripts that usually turn out to be, well .. unpublishable for good reason. And those are the writers who often don’t know boundaries, have emotional issues, or are just plain wacko. And they end up making an author’s life hell.

    I love discovering a new voice. I would really love to help someone who just hasn’t found the right agent yet. But after trying and trying to help unpublished authors out, for many years, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the manuscripts are terrible, and these people are sucking my time and energy, and it’s hardly worth the effort. Enough is enough. I’ve had it.

    There’s a reason for literary agents. They do the screening and they recognize when someone’s ready to be published. That’s their job.

    My job is merely to write.

  22. JT Ellison

    Tess, you are a much kinder person than me. If that happened to me, in a private moment, when I wasn’t being author girl, I don’t think I would have been as graceful about it. That writer sounds like a stalker. Now, I’m a bit paranoid, but with the books we write, sometimes it pays to be a bit paranoid.

    That said, I wish to God I could read everyone’s books. I can’t. I write two books a year. I am slaughtered with deadlines. What I DO do is mentor new writers, giving them advice on what to do next. I’m not an editor, so me reading their book means absolutely nothing. But I’m always happy to talk about publishing, and what’s expected, and give book and blog suggestions to get them started. Five minutes on email costs me nothing, but makes me feel all warn and gooey inside.

    One of my mentees just signed with an agent, and two have requests for fulls. So it’s working well.

  23. Jill James

    Tess, you are very gracious. You were in your private time and he had no right to intrude. Hopefully your next dinner out will be quietier.

    ps. my husband the cop would have tossed him on his keister, but that’s just him. LOL


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