Both the good and bad thing about having my blogging turn fall later in the month is that I get to read everything posted on our chosen topic by my fellow bloggers before deciding what I want to contribute to the ongoing conversation. This month I've had the chance to be struck by the outpouring of generosity of my fellow writers: so many people giving so much to others in so many ways. So it's time to release just a teensy weensy bit of my own inner Scroogism.
I believe in paying it forward. I've been the beneficiary of great kindness from fellow writers, and I've tried to pay forward as much, and more, than I've received. But . . .
What are we to do when we get requests to read and comment on manuscripts - sometimes full-length novels - from (and these are all real examples from my own life): our child's kindergarten teacher, our child's fifth grade teacher, colleagues at work, our pastor, friends of friends of friends - many of whom may be extremely offended if any of the criticism we offer is actually in any way critical? Most recently, one former grad student contacted me because his wife had written a book and needed feedback on it:"Of course, I thought of you." He said he could give her comments himself (though he has never written or published any fiction), but he thought it would be better if the comments came from someone else. "You know, the usual thing, what is your audience, etc. etc." He told me it would probably take me less than an hour.
What should I have said? What would you say? How do we balance generosity to others with respect for our own time and talents? How much is too much?
Here are some guidelines I'm in the process of working out for myself.
1. It takes just a few minutes to write back to someone to give at least some morsel of encouragement and tidbit of advice. Usually, in my case, the advice involves information about the existence and resources of SCBWI.
2. Sometimes, if a manuscript is short enough, it takes me less time to give a couple of general comments than it does to explain why I'm unwilling to do so. I can certainly tell people that what they have is too long to be a picture book, or would work better in prose not rhyme, or would work better without the illustrations provided by their cousin's sister-in-law's neighbor.
3. If it's a longer manuscript, I feel no guilt in declining for reasons of time and offering referrals to writer friends who critique for a well-deserved fee.
4. If someone lives locally, I truly never mind meeting for tea. I've done this many, many, many times, and without exception the people have turned out to be absolutely fascinating and delightful, where it was a gift to me to get to know them. This is exactly how paying it forward should feel.
As for my former grad student, I told him that what he thought would take a mere hour would actually take me more like a full day of careful reading and reflection, for a manuscript that fell outside my area of professional expertise. I told him about the value of a writing group, using my own group as an example, and offered suggestions for how his wife might find one.
I always want to give SOMETHING. But I don't give EVERYTHING. Because if I did, I'd no longer be able to give ANYTHING.