Things NOT to Ask Writers

When we are children there are literally a million ways to strike up a friendship, from asking to borrow a crayon to walking up and poking another kid you’ve never met in the back of the head. Kids are simple that way. Adults are trickier because we rely mostly on polite conversation to suss out some information on each other. We ask common questions that everyone can answer with a relative amount of ease, and one of those questions is inevitably, “What do you do for a living?”

Now, since I have a day job that is completely unrelated to writing, I’ve rarely had to experience the frustration that follows as one grits their teeth, struggles to keep their eye from twitching, and grudgingly admits, “I’m a writer.” I have, however, heard many horror stories and had a few minor experiences myself as a result of people actually catching me in the midst of writing. “Horror stories?” you may ask. Yes, horror stories. Because, the thing is, for reasons I’ll never quite understand, when people discover a writer they immediately plunge into a torrent of questions, many of which are extremely rude and annoying. It’s a strange thing, as though the profession of “writer” is automatically up for intense scrutiny.

Most writers will clench their jaw and try their best to answer the onslaught of questions with a smile plastered on their face, even though on the inside they’re screaming. So on behalf of my fellow writers, I present to the rest of you a list of questions to avoid and why we hate it when you ask them.

Haha, very funny Google. You're not helping.
Haha, very funny Google. You’re not helping.

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“You’re a writer? So, you don’t work then?” or “Oh, that’s cool, but what’s your real job?”

I’ll never understand this myself, but unless you’re an extremely well-known author like Stephen King, or you work as a screenwriter for a popular TV show, people don’t seem to consider writing to be a “real” job. Correct me if I’m wrong, fellow artists, but I feel like writing is the only one of the arts to enjoy this stigma. There’s just something about writing in particular that makes people imagine that it can be a hobby, but not a career.

So let me clear things up: writing is as much a job as anything else. It entails a lot of hard work (more on that later), and if you want to be good at it you have to spend a boatload of time on training, research, practice, keeping up with business trends, networking with peers and important possible business contacts, and, oh yeah…the actual writing.

Just because something sounds fun and easy doesn’t mean that it is, and just because what someone chooses to do with their life isn’t a 9-to-5 with a regular bi-weekly paycheck and benefits doesn’t mean that it isn’t a job.

“What’s your story about?”

Non-writers, I know you think this question shows polite interest, but the question itself is an ignorant over-simplification. This question implies that an intricately woven tapestry of characters, setting, and plot line – something that may have taken months or years to construct – can be easily explained in a couple of sentences. But trust me, non-writers, it is no easier to give a brief description of what we’re writing than it is for a mathematician to explain calculus to someone who has never done it before. It makes us sweat, because we’re caught between making our story sound stupid (“Uh…um…it’s about zombies.”) or putting you in the position of listening to the entire life story of the novel so that you understand what it’s truly about.

If you’re honestly curious about what the writer is writing, a better question would be, “What kind of genres do you write in?” or “Are you working on anything special right now?” If the writer wants to talk about their current work-in-progress, questions like these will pave the way and let them know that you’re actually interested, not just being facetious.

“Have you made any money writing?” or “How much do you make writing?”

For the life of me I’ll never get why people think that this is an okay road to go down. With pretty much any other profession on the planet it is considered extremely rude to ask someone how much money they make (unless you’re already good friends and are comfortable with that kind of sharing), and yet people are constantly asking this of writers. It not only comes off as rude and nosy, but it immediately gives off the impression of disbelief in the writer’s ability to earn a living, which is much, much more than rude.

Do everyone involved a favor, non-writers, and just never bring money up. It’s none of your business and it can come to no good.

“Can I read your book before you publish it?”

No. No, no, no, no, no. There are so many things wrong with this request, but I’ll go with the one that everyone (hopefully) should be able to understand: something for nothing. Would you ask an architect to design a building for free? Would you ask a doctor to do surgery for free? Would you ask an electrician to wire a house for free? The answer in every case is a resounding NO, because it is ridiculous to ask someone to use their time, energy, education, and experience to do something for you for free. It is no different to ask a writer to let you read something (for free!) that you know damn well they’re trying to earn a living with. If you’re really that interested to read, go out and buy the damn book.

“Do you really expect to make a living as a writer?”

Here’s the thing…you can take any highly successful profession on the planet and there will be people who failed miserably at it. Young people with excellent GPAs will flunk out of med school because they can’t handle the pressure. Incredibly intelligent lawyers may fall apart on the stands because they’re no good at public speaking. Genius engineers may make a tiny mistake in their calculations that end up costing companies millions.

I get that the artistic fields (art, writing, music, acting…) are extremely difficult to break into and that the idea of the “starving artist” is a thing for a reason. But that does not give you the right to talk down to a writer because you think their ambitions are too high. Unless you are this particular writer’s parent and you’ve got them bumming in your house rent-and-bill-free, it is absolutely none of your business how they choose to spend their time and whether or not they’re going to be able to survive as a writer.

“Do you really think that self-publishing is the way to go?” or “But you’re not really a real author until you’ve been properly published, right?”

First of all, non-writers, I’m willing to bet that the majority of you don’t know much more about publishing than it’s how books are printed. Therefore, I forgive you for not realizing that there have been enormous shifts in the publishing paradigm in recent years. I forgive you for not knowing that trying to get traditionally published these days is like trying to convince the judges at a dog show to let you enter your cat in the competition. I forgive you for not being privy to the fact that traditional publishing can take so long that your book’s topic may no longer be marketable by the time you’ve gotten it in print. I’ll even forgive you for not being aware that many, many very successful writers have been self-publishing in recent years as trends shift and they realize that self-publishing allows them the ability and freedom to control more of the creative process, distribution, and marketing than ever before.

What I will not forgive you for is asking questions like these when you know damn well that you have no idea what you’re talking about. Do your research first, and then maybe we’ll be willing to have a nice, sit-down conversation about the virtues of each method of publishing.

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I could keep going, but those non-writers who are reading this right now are probably already frowning at their screen and coming up with counter-arguments for why I shouldn’t be so uptight and just be happy that they’re interested enough to ask questions in the first place. So with that I conclude my list of super-frustrating inquiries and open up the floor to my fellow writers. How about it, guys and gals? What questions do you just hate to be asked as a writer?

The Golden Internet Rule

Yesterday on her blog Kristen Lamb spoke about the “three NEVERs” of social media. Without going into too much detail (you can check out her post if you really want to know…it’s a good one!), what the “three NEVERs” basically break down to are “don’t be a jerk to people on the internet because it could come back to bite you in the ass”.

It’s a good point, one that I thought could bear repeating, because so many people are so very, very bad for this. A lot of times it’s unintentional – people say terrible things in the heat of the moment, and social media makes it possible to express those terrible things immediately and to millions of people – but many and more times it’s just people being flat-out jackasses.

The anonymity of the internet gives people a false sense of security in being able to act like a jerk without consequences, but what most people fail to realize is that the internet isn’t as anonymous as it appears. If people really want to, they will track you down, and most of the time we make it very, very easy. How many of us have Facebook accounts, linked to Twitter accounts, linked to personal websites, linked to forum usernames, and so on and so on? And once something is on the internet, it’s pretty much there to stay. Just ask the plethora of celebrities that have tried to have unflattering images cleansed from the world wide web, only to have a billion and one more copies pop up in the blink of an eye.

As kids (I’m looking at you, know-it-all-teens) we can be forgiven a bit of stupidity…we think we know better, and later on we find out we’re wrong and (hopefully) smarten up a bit. But as adults, and professionals, this kind of bad behavior is unforgivable and just plain idiotic.

Recently an old schoolmate of mine posted a status update on Facebook. She’d done an interview on a prospective new hire for her employer, and afterwards went on Facebook to look up the interviewee, as many companies are wont to do these days. What she found was a scathing remark about how the prospective hire had apparently had to dumb down everything he said so the “moron” doing his interview could understand him. What do you think…did she hire him?

It’s a sad truth that people simply don’t think when posting their every thought and whim on the internet. They don’t take two seconds to think about the possible consequences of what they’re about to say. Everyone is guilty of this, even me, but some offenses are much worse than others.

I’ll give a personal example. Though I haven’t been the victim of many trolls or cruel internet japes in my day, I did come across one particular individual during the time I spent at the Critique Circle. This individual seemed to take a deep pleasure in writing scathing critiques of everything he came across. Nothing he read was good enough for him; everything was drivel, pretentious, blatent wish-fulfillment, and so on and so on. Nothing he said was constructive, he simply enjoyed telling everybody he came across how absolutely terrible their writing was in every way. The result? Very simple: no one would critique any of his work. On a site where the entire point is to upload your work and have people beta-read it, he’d ostrasized himself so that no one would touch anything he wrote with a (digital) fifty foot pole.

It all boils down to this: when you’re about to write a Facebook status update, Tweet something, or make a comment on someone’s blog or website, consider for a moment the impression you’re creating and the possible consequences you might incur. You wouldn’t tell an interviewer to their face that you think they’re a drooling moron, so why would you say it online where that same person could easily find it? You wouldn’t tell your editor or publisher that you think everything they do is crap, so why would you say the same thing to people who are supposed to be helping you become a better writer for free?

I’ve heard it said a million times, but rarely do most people seem to listen. None-the-less, I’ll say it again because it needs to be said:

If there’s someone you wouldn’t want reading it, don’t post it on the internet.

Have you ever said or done anything stupid on the internet that you later regretted? Have you ever been in a position to “reward” someone for being stupid on the internet? What are your thoughts on this lovely digital trend of ours? Please share!

Comfortable People are Lazy People

A reminder: This post courtesy of Julie Jarnagin’s 101 Blog Post Ideas for Writers.

95. Breaking out of your comfort zone

Humans are creatures of habit, by nature. We like to stick with what we know, what’s comfortable and easy. That’s why it’s so hard for us to do things like move away from home, take on a new diet or exercise routine, or otherwise break out of our “comfort zone”.

For writers this can be particularly detrimental. While you want to write what you know, what you’re good at, you don’t want to dig yourself into a rut. You don’t want to stagnate. You can’t stick with the exact same formula for your entire career; if you do, your writing will become predictable and boring. Imagine for a moment that a reader is picking up your latest book at a storm and skimming over the cover. Now imagine that reader making a face, thinking, “Why bother spending the money on something that’s going to be the exact same as the last one he/she wrote?” and putting the book back on the shelf. Now imagine reader after reader all doing the exact same thing, no one ever taking the leap to actually purchase the book. How does that feel? I’m going to wager not very good. Even if you’re someone who takes criticism extremely well, you can’t deny the fact that not selling your book is a bad thing. A very bad thing.

So how do we break out of our comfort zones and keep producing books that our readers will want to read? By buckling down, gritting our teeth, and forcing ourselves to do the opposite of what we would normally do. Are all of your main characters always female? Force yourself to write from a male perspective. Do all of your stories feature a romance subplot? Try a subplot about how much two characters can’t stand each other. Do you only write stories for adults? Try writing one for kids. Doing any of these things will probably be difficult, likely it will even be unpleasant, but it will force you to break your mental boundaries, and you never know…you just might discover that you enjoy it.

For myself, I have a few bad habits writing in my “comfort zone” that I’m actively tying to break. All of the examples above were taken from my own experience. I always write from the perspective of female main characters – not because I don’t think I can write from a male perspective, but because it’s easier to write from a female one. I always have a romance subplot in my stories because I enjoy writing about people falling for each other, even under unusual circumstances (*cough*zombie apocalypse*cough*). And I always write for adults – not because I don’t think I could write books for kids, but because I enjoy writing sex and violence, and it’s usually preferable that those things stay away from kids. I’ve been trying to break some of these habits lately, and yes it’s difficult, and sometimes it definitely sucks, but I do believe that I’m learning from the experience.

Never stop learning, no matter what you’re doing or how good you might think you already are. It would be the biggest mistake you’d ever make.

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Today you get to enjoy a bit of a brain dump because I have a few things to mention, none of which really justify their own separate post.

First of all, I’ve made a couple of small changes to the site. You’ve probably noticed the little character off to the left of the screen. I’ve made up a number of little avatars which are meant to show my current writing progress. Presently, my little character is enjoying the life of editing a manuscript…see the little displeased eyes and the pile of red-marked papers behind her? Yep, that just about covers it. I’ll change the character every now and then to match what I’m currently doing: for example, come November I’ll be taking a break from editing to participate in NaNoWriMo 2012…so you’ll get to see a new little avatar (or two) at that time. In addition to my little characters, I’ve created a new page for information on my projects. You can see it up there between “About” and “Follow Me On”. Currently I only have a small blurb for my zombie manuscript, but I’ll be adding more in the future when I get a chance to decide how I want the page laid out.

Second, I feel the need to share something that happened near home recently that really accentuates the theme of corporate greed that I’ve been mentioning so often lately. Last night, during the night shift at a local Tim Horton’s restaurant, one of the staff passed away. I’m not privy to the details of her death, but for the purposes of what I’m about to share, she died in the restaurant, during her shift…my heart goes out not only to her family, but to the coworkers who had to witness the event. But witnessing the event is nothing compared to what happened then…the manager/owner/whoever-was-in-charge of the restaurant refused to shut the Tim Horton’s down even for a little while…the remaining workers were forced to finish their shift…after their coworker had just died in front of them. I cannot express my disgust over this. As with the other examples I’ve given of late, Tim Hortons is a multi-billion-dollar corporation, and the idea that one would refuse to shut down for a couple of hours (during a middle-of-the-night shift at that) due to the sudden death of an employee is absolutely sickening. This misplacement of priorities in this situation make me want to retch. I sincerely hope that the other employees involved in this get together and sue the company for emotional distress and neglect. No one should have to deal with something like that, much less for goddamn minimum wage.

Third, I came across an article on Cracked.com today that I wanted to share for all the readers/writers out there. 4 Ways High School Makes You Hate Reading is about exactly what it’s title suggests, and I agreed with each point made. There are fewer readers in the world today because of the exact reasons Christina H suggests, and that’s truly a shame. A common theme throughout her article is that as adults it seems like we are expected to read “fine literature” and that anything less is shallow, useless junk. This is a point that I both agree with wholeheartedly and notice often when talking about my own projects. Whenever anyone finds out that I’m writing a book they will inevitably ask me what the book is about, and I will watch their eyes go from impressed to politely bemused when I tell them it’s about zombies. It’s like adults aren’t allowed to have fun while reading, or something foolish like that.

Fourth: holy hell, it’s already October! I’ve got to get to work on the baby’s Halloween costume! *runs away*