You readers frequently write to ask me if I will read something you have written: a summary, poem, story, or even a novel. This seems perfectly fair; after all, you have read something of mine, and sometimes my writing has been a source of inspiration to you. You want to share something with me in return, to show me where my ideas have led you. Sharing writing is a sign of true friendship, and I am always honored and touched when you ask.
In the past, with great hesitation, I have read several items from readers, and I can say without any hesitation at all that those items were a true delight. I have been astounded at their quality and have enjoyed them thoroughly. It will surprise you, then, to learn that I have decided not to read any more items by you readers, and I've written this page to try to explain why.
Like you, I shared a story with someone who mattered to me. And that person stole my story.
It happened when I was in school. The story was a class assignment. I shared my writing with a good friend, and she stole all the ideas in it to write her own assignment. Discovering that was one of the most horrible moments of my life. And I didn't voluntarily write down another story for twenty-five years!
The fact that you are ready to share your writing with me tells me that this has never happened to you, and I never want it to happen to you: I still can't share chapters of a manuscript without worrying about how that part of my story might wind up under somone else's name. Yes, it's true that I would never steal your story or your ideas, but here's the catch: you won't necessarily know that. And that's what worries me the most!
Tolkien once described fantasy as a big pot of soup: the same things keep turning up in it again and again. We fantasy authors know that there are no new fantasy ideas, or plots, or characters. There are only ideas, or plots, or characters that are new enough to keep readers interested. Because of this, we authors often write stories with very similar ideas entirely without meaning to. We haven't copied from each other. We've just both read the same myths. That's how our genre is.
I once heard about a publishing house that was all set to publish a novelist's very first book when they had to pull the plug on the project. It seems that one of their regular authors had just turned in a manuscript with almost the same story. They couldn't publish both, so the new novelist had to go. There was no plagiarism involved. It was just an accident—old-fashioned bad luck.
Add to that the problem that authors work several years out. What I'm writing right now won't show up in bookstores for another two years. And what I'm plotting out and planning to write next won't show up in bookstores for three years.
Now, let's say you send me a story. Because you like my books so much, you've written something similar to my own style. I find to my dismay that you've read my mind: in your story is a situation very similar to what's in my next book. I've already written it—a year ago, in fact. But will you realize that? Probably not, even if I try to explain. Instead, you'll read that book next year and say, "Oh, no! My favorite author stole my story!" And all sorts of things you felt about books, writing, and trust will be shattered—possibly forever.
How likely is that to happen? Well, it might not happen with ten stories, or even with a hundred. But you don't know how many requests I receive from readers who want me to read their work! Sooner or later, it's bound to happen. I know how limited my genre is and how proud we writers are of our own ideas.
So, if I read your work, I'm playing Russian roulette, but I know that you'll be the one who gets hurt. I don't want you to find out how that feels—not if there's something I can do to prevent it.