I was contacted recently by a writer -- young, presumably, and probably as yet unpublished -- who wanted me to read and comment a story he or she had written. When I said that, for good and sufficient reasons, I couldn't, the writer demanded to know what those reasons could possibly be.
So I thought I'd explain this here.
1. You're asking someone you don't know to do unpaid work for you.
Yes, I'm capable of doing it. So too, I presume, you're capable of mowing a lawn or painting a wall or washing windows. But I wouldn't dream of asking you to do so for me. It's just not reasonable.
2. You're not the only one who wants me to read and comment on your work.
Forget, for the moment, gonnabe writers. I get requests all the time from editors to read soon-to-be published novels in the hope that I'll give them a blurb. Some of them are by good friends whom I know to be very fine writers. The rest have, at a very minimum, convinced a major publisher to invest in their careers. I can't get to a fraction as many of these as I would like. But they all have priority over a request from a complete stranger.
3. My analytic skills are valuable.
I know a young freelancer who does skilled office work for fifty dollars an hour and grunt-work for twenty an hour. So it's not immodest of me to suppose that I could get significantly more, if I wanted to put my services on the market.
4. People have paid for my literary advice, and it would be an insult to them for me to give away that same advice gratis. (Other than here on my blog, or as favors to close friends, I mean.)
I'm thinking here of the Clarion and Clarion West and Clarion South classes I've taught. Also of the recent writing seminar at Balticon 50. All the students made significant sacrifices for my advice. They'd feel pretty silly if they found out that it could have been had for just the asking.
5. You probably don't really want my advice.
My experience with people who ask for advice is that they don't actually want it. They want to be told that their stories are perfect as they are and that I'm going to bend heaven and earth to find them an agent and a publisher. They don't think that's what they want. But their disappointment when I give them a list of ways their work fails to come up to snuff, speaks volumes.
6. I hear time's wing'd chariot drawing near.
There is only so much time in a single life and a single career, and at my age if I have another quarter-century of productivity, I'll have beaten the actuarial tables. So right now my primary focus (aside from family and loved ones, I mean) is on creating an enduring body of work. For that I need luck, hard work, and as much of my time as I can give it.
That's why I have the above sentence taped to the top of my CRT monitor. People come to me all the time with fun projects and worthy causes. Sometimes I agree to them. Sometimes, afterward, I regret that. Not because there was anything wrong with the projects and causes. But because I've got a novel to finish, and at the moment that requires as much of my time and attention as I can give it.
And that's it. I hope I don't sound too hostile. I bear you no ill-will. I don't resent you for asking. I hope your story is great and it sells and that it leads into a splendid career as one of the best writers of the century. Why not?
But for good and sufficient reasons, I have to turn down your request to read and comment on your story.