Thursday, September 17, 2009

Who Will Read Your manuscript? Not this guy

James O. Born

I was in Denver this last week at the Colorado Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s conference. I intend to blog much more about that next week. While I was in the Mile High City, I read an essay from the Village Voice by screenwriter Josh Olsen titled, I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script. I did not want to edit the title or change the meaning or tenor of Mr. Olsen’s thesis in any way. I suspect a prick like this might try to sue me if I did. Did I just say that or think it? No, I said it. While I found the first few paragraphs of the essay on target and entertaining, I soon realized, as I waited for the punch line, that this guy is exactly the kind of professional who can crush a new writer.

Here is the opening:

I will not read your fucking script.

That's simple enough, isn't it? "I will not read your fucking script." What's not clear about that? There's nothing personal about it, nothing loaded, nothing complicated. I simply have no interest in reading your fucking screenplay. None whatsoever.
If that seems unfair, I'll make you a deal. In return for you not asking me to read your fucking script, I will not ask you to wash my fucking car, or take my fucking picture, or represent me in fucking court, or take out my fucking gall bladder, or whatever the fuck it is that you do for a living.

This excerpt captures the tone of the article with an illustrating example to support his idea.

While I see his point -- all working writers have had the experience of being accosted by someone with a manuscript -- there is an snarky meanness to the piece that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

I will say that this Hollywood tool brings up a couple of good points:

They think that screenwriting doesn't actually require the ability to write, just the ability to come up with a cool story that would make a cool movie. Screenwriting is widely regarded as the easiest way to break into the movie business, because it doesn't require any kind of training, skill or equipment. Everybody can write, right? And because they believe that, they don't regard working screenwriters with any kind of real respect.

What writer hasn’t met someone at a book signing who boasts that when they retire they’re going to write for a living. Good luck with that plan. It’s the people I meet at conferences who are learning the craft and know the odds of publication I try to take more seriously.

Mr. Olson also lays down one absolute truth:

If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you're not a writer.

Now he’s on the money. I’ve always felt that if you’re not compelled to write don’t write. Everyone has a story to tell but execution is 99% of it.

On reflection, while I wrote this little blog, I’ve reevaluated my perception of Mr. Olson. Maybe he is set upon like no one else. He makes too many good points to be ignored. There were even a few chuckles in the essay. So why do I wonder if I’d punch this guy in the noggin if I ever met him? It’s the tone. I know he’s important. I know he’s busy. But guess what, so is Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Tess Guerittsen, Elmore Leonard, Sue Grafton and every other published author I ever met, but they never had to write a piece like this.

All of us are swamped. I have cops ask me every week about writing a book. When I ask them who they read and they say “I don’t read fiction” , I tell them to read a hundred novels then we’ll talk about them pursuing a novel of their own. You know what, every once in a while, a year or two later, I have someone call me back. And we talk. I also have to explain that I am sometimes more than a year behind in reading manuscripts. Another point Mr. Olson makes well. If they’re patient I’ll get to it. But I can’t bump someone else to the bottom of the stack.

Maybe I’m wrong and just not hip enough to get Mr. Olson’s style. I see his points, but I was put off by the essay. Am I wrong? Is this guy the new Mother Teresa dressed all black? Is he a jokester, and I, just a backward redneck who missed the joke? I hate when I do that, but it happens. What do you guys think about the essay and about reading unsolicited manuscripts?


  1. As far as I'm concerned, he could have stopped with "I'm a d&%k."

  2. Well, I wrote a long-winded blog entry about the topic and my response to Olson. Then John Scalzi followed up with a far less vicious and well-articulated blog post on it, too. I think TV and film people probably get hit with this more than novelists, but, I think my biggest problem with Olson's piece was the tone. Now, that said, I do understand that if he had written a straightforward, non-snark piece saying the same thing, not only would the Village Voice not have run it and presumably paid him for it, but he wouldn't have become a topic of discussion by damn near every writer with a blog. I'd love the exposure, if not the negativity.

    My response mostly comes down to, if you come out of the blue, I probably won't read your stuff. If you interact with me (As Joe Konrath said, "Wine me, dine me, 69 me.") a bit, I'll consider it. Maybe. It depends, because I'm currently writing 2 or 3 of my own novels, trying to read 2 books, 6 newsletter, a newspaper, and 4 or 5 magazines, as well as make a living as a freelance writer with deadlines, etc. You've got to understand that if I look at my priority list, reading someone else's manuscript, particularly if I don't know them terribly well, is going to be well down on that list, if they make it at all.

    Of course, I'm not sure most would-be writers understand that.

  3. Hey Jim,

    Great points.

    (And there's a typo in Tess's name.)


  4. I have to say I agree with DebbyJ. LOL That said, I do see that the snarkiness of the piece is part of its appeal (in a sick sort of way) and it's definitely working to get people talking. Also, who hasn't been frustrated by those who feel entitled? I don't mind getting asked for favors. Because I run a major charity auction every year, I ask lots of people for favors and am very grateful when I meet with people who are pretty much the opposite of Olson. LOL I know this life isn't all about ME or MY time. But it can be off-putting to hear from someone who expects me to spend several hours trying to advance their career when they've made it quite apparent that they've never even picked up one of my books.

  5. Coming out of lurker mode. I wouldn't have been able to get past the "f*&&%^%g* part to take him seriously. High school trash talk doesn't endear me to anyone. He may have made some good points, but they were lost in the language.

  6. James O. Born9/17/2009 8:40 AM

    Thnaks for backing me up , gang. And mark, I didn't think Konrath could make me sick without being n the room with me. I was wrong.


  7. Someone rewrote the post as a Dr. Seuss poem, and Harlan Ellison does a dramatic reading of it. Classic.

  8. I think Olson went hyperbolic to make his point. It's truly odd that people you don't know, and weren't introduced to, and have no connection with....will waltz up at a conference or e-mail you a m/s asking for help.

    It's hard enough giving critical advice to people your know, most of whom don't want criticism, but rather to be told just how brilliant they are. (If you wanted me to say, "don't change a word," why show it to me.)

    Yeah, maybe Olson is a prick. Or maybe just a curmudgeon. But his words ring true.

    (BTW, Jim....would you read a m/s for me?)

  9. Bill, I received the Dr. Seuss version via e-mail and thought it was funny but went on too long.

  10. James O. Born9/17/2009 1:13 PM

    Paul, As usual, you're right. It probably is schitk. Then he doesn't mind the backlash.

    Bill and Patty, I'll look for the piece you're talking about.


  11. Happy to find your blog! Loved your session on realism at the conference. Need to actually read one of your books...have been telling people about you.

  12. Seth who?

    Does he also realize that "in return" he's also "not asking" me to patronize anything that he has ever written, or might be associated with? Some favor...

    I guess we'll see what happens when he needs his gall bladder removed. :)

  13. Loathe as I am to defend anything Hollywood, there is a bit of context that may be missing.

    I did my time in that town, and you wouldn't believe the sheer volume of people who *don't read anything,* including canonical screenplays, before they write a screenplay and start flogging it.

    Sure, Dude didn't have to swear so much, but think of it as more post traumatic stress syndrome than inherent bad manners.

    When I left L.A., I honestly believed if I had to read another exploding helicopter or pyscho-killer story, I would chew off my own head. These are not naive beginners who, with gentle prodding will realize they have to write six or eight long works before they get really good. These are people who simply don't care about writing, or even storytelling. They are obsessed with trends, with finding the right person, more than with writing.

    Oh, and in a town where lying is just another form of communication, the guy probably added ten years to his life by speaking the truth. The pressure must have been killing him.