11/04/2010 04:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

"I'm Writing This Book, and I'm Wondering if You --"

These words are God's punishment for literary success. They come from aspiring writers of infinite variety: former students, a friend of a friend, a reader who "has bought all your books," an old high school teacher, a neighbor in ill health, one's own children. Through emails, letters, phone calls and "chance" encounters, the requests to "pick your brain" (code for "read my manuscript") come along unceasingly. It's the one aspect of the literary life that can give published authors agoraphobia.

However, if the author is a pro he won't turn weird. No visible wince at a request to give a manuscript a "quick read." No betrayal, as in a poker game, of one's sudden low cards (there's no chance to side-step this would-be writer -- he's my brother-in-law). Writers get unending requests to read manuscripts -- it's part of the territory -- and read them for free, of course, if not for sheer pleasure. Because isn't that what authors like to do in their free time? (Not really. Our free time is mostly spent attending to life neglected; Annie Dillard says that, at the end of a book, her plants are usually dead.) But not to worry. Most authors have strategies to deal with manuscript moochers.

The first type is the sunny, cheerful, and totally oblivious novice. She is clueless about the publishing world but believes that, because she speaks English and has raised three kids, she is now qualified to write books. Another variety is the committed writer who has paid some dues through an MFA or several unpublished manuscripts but who is hesitant to "bother" older writers. "I'm sure you get asked this all the time," they begin (self-awareness is not the worst gambit.) Then there are the confidence tricksters, nearly always aggressive males, who start up a seemingly innocuous correspondence via email that gradually defaults to "I'm writing this book and I'm wondering if you..." And finally there are those who just send manuscripts. Joyce Carol Oates writes darkly about the latter type in an essay called "I Am Sorry to Inform You", a piece I found harrowing if not a bit horrifying.

Once, after a PEN event at the Library of Congress wherein she and I both received a short story award, I followed up with letter: "My first novel, Red Earth, White Earth, is just coming out and I'm wondering if..." I was hoping for a blurb, but in a polite, handwritten (and unsigned) note she declined. I still feel cheap about asking her. On the other hand, how are young writers to break away from the pack? Get a "real writer" to help them see that last, small missing thing in their manuscript?

So I say to aspiring authors, keep asking. Most published authors don't take for granted their success. They give back as much as they can without killing their own canary. If I've gotten to know a person a bit via a class or at a writer's conference, etc., I'll often agree to take a look. I won't accept a whole manuscript, but a chapter or two. Twenty pages max. Truth be told, I can tell within a few sentences whether the writer has any hope of publication at this point in his or her writing life. However, it doesn't take long to make some generally helpful suggestions in terms of style, description, voice, et al.

I have no boilerplate recommendations, but I or any writer could easily make up a list -- the traditional ones of "show, don't tell," and "kill your darlings," etc. On the other hand, every writer has his or her particular blind spots, and it takes only a few minutes to comment on those. Often I closely line edit 2-3 pages, with the idea that young writers will carry my advice forward on their own -- taking what works for them, and ignoring the rest. For in the end, we teach ourselves how to write.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.