There’s been a lot of talk in the blogosphere the past couple of days about GISHWHES. To be clear, I had never heard of this for-charity international scavenger hunt before the other day, and I have not done due diligence on it, so I cannot speak to whether or not the organization itself is worthwhile. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that it is. Let’s talk about why so many of your favorite authors are so grumpy about being asked to write a 140-word story about Misha Collins, the Queen of England, and an imaginary creature on behalf of people entered in it.
Let me start by saying that I did write a story for this contest. The request came from someone I know, a fellow writer (who does not qualify to write it herself because of the specific requirement that the writer have published science fiction), with an offer to pay me professional rates and an acknowledgment that the terms and conditions (or, rather, lack thereof) left a fair bit to be desired. (I declined the offer for pay, asking her to route resources into another good cause she’s involved with.) Still, my first reaction on receiving the request was, “Oh, hell, no!”
You see, I’m writing a thesis right now. I need to turn in a syllabus for a class I’ve never taught before in less than a week. I’m prepping for my comprehensive literature exam. And I’m off to Winkie Con in a couple of days.
I also need to explain that “it’s only 140 words” does not make it easier to write. In fact, most writers find micro fiction harder to write.
There were several factors that went into my decision to say yes. First and most important is who asked and how she did so. That’s what got me over my gut reaction and prompted me to actually look into this GISHWES thing. And what I found was hilarious, and gave me an idea for a story. If I hadn’t had the idea right away, I’m sure I still would have declined. The request also was remarkably well timed in that it came just as I hit a roadblock in the thesis and was deliberately distracting myself while I let my subconscious work it out. Again, even with a great idea and the right request, I probably would have declined had the writing I’m supposed to be doing been going smoothly.
Subsequent requests I’ve been declining, not because the above factors would not enter into it again (and, yes, I would consider a request from a stranger if it was politely and professionally worded), but rather because I think it violates the spirit of the contest to have one author providing stories to multiple teams.
Which brings me to where I’m going to disagree with some of my fellow writers about why this particular scavenger hunt item is so problematic. Yes, it’s true that professional writers expect to be paid for their labor. We wouldn’t, for example, expect a mason to build us a stone wall for a scavenger hunt just because your team would get points. Yes, it’s also true that the contest is not a publisher and therefore the website lacks appropriate contract language to publish original short fiction. Both these things have irked some very high-profile authors, but for me, they’re not that big of a deal. After all, a scavenger hunt shouldn’t be about finding items that are easily obtained. “Item 3: Lint from a clothes dryer. 30 points” is just going to result in every team that enters getting 30 points. There need to be some items that are hard to talk someone into providing — like getting a mason build a stone wall, for example. Or getting a professional science fiction writer to write an original story for you. There are ways to get it done, after all, but not everyone is going to be able to pull it off. That’s the point.
So I’m O.K., personally, with fielding (and, at this point, declining) requests for this. But there’s one thing you need to remember about me: I’m not Neil Gaiman. My loyal readers probably number in the tens, not the millions or even the thousands. And I’ve never done the market research to determine what percentage of my loyal readers share chromosomes with me, but I suspect it’s a higher than average number. Most people have never heard of me. I’m an obscure short storyist, not someone with a large fan base to manage, editors breathing down my back, and a public image to maintain.
And that last point is critical. Your favorite authors — or at least the authors who pop up first in Google when you search “published science fiction author” — have a public image to maintain. And when they suddenly get slammed with hundreds of requests to write a short story for some contest they’ve never heard of, well, they’ve been put in a tough position. Realistically, there’s no way they can do so for everyone who asks, even if they are so inclined. So they’re forced to tell fans and readers, “Sorry, can’t help you,” which they’re savvy enough to know will be interpreted, at least by some people, as, “No, I don’t care about charity or about you, my loyal fan.” Do you see how these big names are being put between a rock and a hard place with this?
I also have another trait that makes me more willing to participate: I have no fear of publishing something awful. Any regular reader of this blog knows that I’m perfectly willing to put up some truly terrible writing for you to make fun of. I assume that everyone knows that 140 words on that particular prompts isn’t something that’s meant to be high quality fiction, and I therefore was willing to break all my rules about how to write something worthy of being paid for. Someone with a literary legacy to watch out for may not feel so generous. There was very little time given for the contest. The absolute most amount of time any author might get to write their story was a week. Many authors (me included) have a rule that we set the story aside for a week after we finish the final draft, so we can give it a read with fresh eyes before we submit it. I imagine a lot of authors who might have been willing to participate had there been some warning and a three-month deadline said no outright just based on the timetable. And then, of course, there’s the issue of how, exactly, one writes a good story in 140 words about a T.V. actor, a monarch, and an elephant-octopus hybrid. I’m inclined to think it can’t be done, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that assessment. Again, can we fault anyone concerned that you, the reader, should trust any story with their name on it to be worth reading for refusing to touch this contest with a 10-foot pole?
So my advice to anyone doing a last-minute search for likely authors is to first and foremost remember that you are, in fact, asking a lot of the author. I expect you’ll have the best chances with someone who is an emerging talent (and note that just because you don’t know who they are does not mean that they’re not established, busy writers). When you contact them, mention what it is about their writing that makes you think they would enjoy doing this (which, yes, means that you should read some of their writing), and make sure you emphasize that they’re under no obligation if they’re too busy or just not interested. Offering (sincerely) to pay also shows you respect their labor.
And be prepared for them to say no, which they will probably do in more than 140 words — keeping it short is more work, after all.
Go forth, and have fun.