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?

Dear lord, my head!

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve been considering using CreateSpace to self-publish my zombie novel. I’ve been reconsidering that stance lately for a few reasons. One is that as it turns out you have to jump some hoops if you’re a Canadian because CreateSpace claims tax for the IRS. Another reason is that it just plain seems like a more impressive accomplishment to be published by an actual publishing company. It’s like being accepted to university…you feel somehow better about yourself than if you’d just decided to take one of those online “become _____ in only _____ weeks!” courses.

But here’s the thing…I’ve been looking into how you submit a manuscript. I’ve been looking into it in depth. And my head seriously feels like it may explode. It’s not that submitting a manuscript is, in theory, that complicated. The problem is that the publishers make it complicated by each having their own set of rules and regulations. Some want the manuscript emailed in a Word document format, others want it printed and mailed to them. Some want the full, completed manuscript while others just want a synopsis and an excerpt. Some don’t allow you to submit to anyone else while they’re looking at your manuscript (this is one I can’t stand) while others couldn’t care less. Some are only looking to do print books, some are only looking to do ebooks, some are looking to do both, and they all have their own rules about what you can do regarding the formats they don’t plan to use. And they all seem to have their own version of how the manuscript and your query letter should be formatted, and they have the right to basically throw your manuscript away if you haven’t formatted it properly.

For example, one publisher I’m looking at that deals in a lot of horror stories wants the manuscript emailed, in full, in a Word document, double spaced, justified format, with a particular type of title page and author info page. They don’t care if you submit to other publishers at the same time. They’re only looking to print in ebook format and don’t care if you want to use another venue to do print books. They estimate 30 days to get back to you on whether or not they’re interested.

Another publisher I’m looking at wants the manuscript printed and mailed to them. They have their own formatting rules that are different from the publisher above. They only allow you to submit to them, and if they find out you’ve submitted to someone else at the same time, your manuscript is automatically tossed out. They’re only looking to do print books, but they don’t allow you to do ebook format with another venue while you’re under contract with them. They estimate 90 days to get back to on whether or not they’re interested.

Now, looking at those two publishers, you’d think the first one is the more attractive-looking one. They get back to you quicker, allow you more freedoms, etc. But here’s the caveat….they pay a lot less. Their estimate for an advance and royalties is considerably less than the second publisher. So then you have to try and decide, would you rather have a better chance of getting published, or have a better chance of actually making some money when you get published?

It’s a surprisingly difficult decision. Yes, just getting published is more important to me, but it’s also hard to look at the differences in possible monetary compensation and feel good about choosing the lesser. It’s no different than any other job…you want to have some fun and freedom in your workplace, but a higher paycheck definitely makes it easier to deal with a little bull, if you know what I mean.

So now that I’ve done a bunch of research, read a ton of submission guidelines, and made my head thoroughly angry at me, I believe I’ve come to a very important conclusion about how to publish my book.

That is: “Stop worrying about the publishing details until you finish the damn thing already!

Good advice, me. Good advice.