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?

A Childish Memory: Blessing or Curse?

I often say that when dealing with kids we should try very hard to remember what it was like to be one. I honestly believe that this is very good advice, but sometimes it can also be a bit of a curse.

When I was a little kid, I had a hard time sharing. Actually, I should reword that: I didn’t have a problem sharing when it came to other kids’ toys, but I was awful about it when it came to my own toys. The problem, I suspect, stemmed from when I was quite young and my cousin hid my Playskool flashlight while we were both staying at our grandmother’s house. When my parents came to pick me up it was still hidden and he insisted that he couldn’t remember where he’d put it. My grandmother did manage to find it before we left, but I was freaking out there for a few minutes because the thought of leaving a toy behind was absolutely unthinkable. It might seem like an innocuous event, but remember that small things can feel like a big, big deal to a kid. From that day forward I had formulated the belief that if I let other kids touch my toys they would hide them, steal them, or break them. Not a good attitude, but one I was powerless to expel from my head.

Now that I’m a parent, surprisingly, I find this attitude is still very much prevalent in the back of my mind. Recently we had our niece stay over for a night, and the two girls had a blast together, but every so often our niece would start playing with (what was evidently) the wrong thing, and my daughter would have a mini-breakdown. The first time it was her My Little Ponies. She had five of them lined up on the table in front of her when Niece ran over and took one to put in the farmhouse play set. Daughter looked like she was going to have the tantrum of a lifetime, complete with big, sooky, quivering lip. She couldn’t have looked any more upset if Niece had tossed the toy in a bonfire while laughing maniacally.

So here’s where “parent” brain began to have a vicious duel-to-the-death with “I totally remember exactly what it felt like to be in that position” brain. Of course I had to tell Daughter that she had to share, and that it was going to be fine, that she could have her pony back when Niece was done with it. But in my mind, while looking into those tear-filled little eyes, I was positively screaming bloody murder. Niece did absolutely nothing wrong (Daughter wasn’t even really playing with the pony at the time…it just happened to be physically in front of her), but my natural instinct was to tell Niece that the pony belonged to Daughter and to give it back right now.

This, my friends, is the curse of remembering (truly remembering) what it felt like to be a kid. Every time I try to teach my daughter a life lesson I get vivid flashes of memories from my own parents trying to do the same thing. The result is that I recall how frustrating it was to go through that as a child, as well as experiencing how frustrating it is from the adult’s point-of-view right this minute. It’s really just a vicious cycle of never-ending frustration.

Here’s another example to prove this wasn’t an isolated incident: food. I can remember, quite clearly in fact, my mother demanding that I eat my carrots when I was little. I hated carrots, and I couldn’t understand what was so damn important about my consuming them, especially when my father would side with me by saying things like, “There’s no point in trying to force it down her throat if she doesn’t like it.” Nowadays, here I am dealing with a picky eater who doesn’t even want to try things, and while I know that she has to have variety and that she can’t just get out of supper every night by saying she doesn’t like it, I keep flashing back to those feelings of, “Why would you force me to eat something I hate?!

I still believe that remembering what it’s like to be a kid is a good thing, but having too vivid a memory can definitely interrupt parental instinct a bit, and this is something I have a lot of trouble with. I’m working through it one instance at a time (while grinding my teeth down to little nubs), but it’s harder than it sounds.

Do you remember what it felt like to be a kid? Do you think that this makes it easier or harder to deal with children now that you’re grown? Do you ever have to restrain yourself from having childish outbursts because of how you acted as a kid? Please share!

Titular First Impressions….Titular…*snerk*

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

98. Choosing a title.

There are many aspects to writing that are difficult, frustrating, and sometimes downright miserable. Choosing a title is not one of those things. Oh no. Choosing a title is so, so much worse.

The title of a book is the most immediate of first impressions. It (along with the cover of the book) is the first thing a prospective reader will see, and with that in mind, you have to determine what exactly you want that reader to think when they first look at your book. A terrible title could completely destroy a book’s chances of being picked up, browsed through, purchased, and read. Imagine, for a moment, some alternative titles for your favorite books. Would you honestly have picked up that same book if it had had a ridiculous title? Can you imagine purchasing The Lord of the Rings, for example, if you knew nothing of it beforehand and it’s title was actually A Really Long Journey? What if The Chronicles of Narnia had been titled, Stories About Another World? What if Dracula had been titled, A Very Old Vampire?

These are extreme(ly silly) examples, of course, but never-the-less, you must agree that many an attitude can rapidly change about the readability of a book if you fail to title it properly.

Take, for example, my current work-in-progress, Parallels. This story, at it’s heart, is about a young woman who is pulled into an alternate universe – a parallel world, if you will – and discovers that she has been drawn there to save it from an ancient evil. I began writing this particular story almost ten years ago. It is the work that I’ve mentioned before…the one that I’ve re-written so many times that I’ve never gotten anywhere near to finishing it. When I first started this story, it was my intention that the world the woman comes from and the one she travels to would be very different, but also have many parallels between them. It was my intention that as she travelled along on her journey she would regularlty become confronted with people and places that mirrored the world she grew up in, which would force her to confront many personal issues. However, as the story evolved, was rewritten, changed numerous times, and eventually became the piece I’m working on today, that no longer became the root of the story. Yes, the two worlds are still parallels, but not nearly as much so as I had originally imagined. There are only a handful of these parallels left in the story I’m writing now, and that got me thinking that perhaps the title didn’t make much sense. Then I started really thinking and it occurred to me that even if the title did make sense, it’s really not a very catchy title at all, is it? Tell me truthfully now, if you were browsing through the fantasy section of your local book store and came across a book with the word “Parallels” emblazoned across the cover, would it catch you? Draw you in? Would you even notice it?

Now perhaps some of you can say yes to these questions. Perhaps even many of you can. But that is the hell an author has to go through when choosing a title : relentlessly wondering if it’s the right one.

Now maybe the title will just come to you and you’ll know, inside, that it’s the right one. Maybe you won’t even be given the chance because your publisher will retain the right to title your work as they wish (does this happen? I honestly don’t know). Or maybe you’ll be talking about your book someday and someone will say, “You know what you should call it?”, and it will be the greatest title ever and you’ll hug them and kiss them and be their best friend forever.

But chances are you’ll be like me, bashing your head off a wall, thinking about what a stupid title you’ve chosen and desperately wracking your brain for another. Many people have a very difficult time choosing a name for their baby. It is really no different for an author naming their book. So think about it hard, consider all the angles, and when you figure out the best method for making your final decision, please feel free to come back to this blog and let me know.

Buyer Beware

Let me tell you my tale of woe and mind-bending frustration.

My husband and I are currently in the market for a television stand for our living room. As our living room is one of the nicer rooms in our house, we thought we’d get one of those electric fireplace stands. We don’t need it for the heat, but we think they’re really nice looking, and our daughter would sit and stare at the fake flames all day, no joke.

The town where we live is not overwhelmed with places to shop, and even the places we do have are smaller than their other counterparts and rarely stock what we’re looking for, so last Friday we took a drive. We drove to New Glasgow, and there we visited their Canadian Tire store.

The fireplaces were on display when we first walked in the store and we began browsing. Almost immediately we were joined by an associate who turned out to be the hardware manager, we’ll call him P. P was very nice and helpful. He showed us that he had a couple of fireplaces on sale, and in particular he led us to the end of the display and pointed to a lovely little display with glass-door cupboards and a 1500 watt heater. P made sure to impress on us that this particular model was on sale, and pointed to the tag that was placed in front of the display…Odessa Fireplace: $399.

After a bit of deliberation my husband and I decided that, yes, we liked this particular model very much. Our only issue was how we were going to get it into our car. No problem, said P…if you take it out of the main box it comes in smaller chunks that will easily fit in any vehicle. “Alrighty then,” we said, “Let’s do it!” So P picked up the tag that was in front of our fireplace – the one that read Odessa: $399 – and used the product number to go into the stockroom and find the fireplace. We paid, P took the smaller component boxes out of the main box and loaded them in our car, and we drove all the way home, which (did I forget to mention?) is about a 90 minute drive.

It wasn’t until my husband was halfway through putting the shelving together that we realized something was amiss. “Wait a moment,” he said, “This is a completely different color than the one we picked out!” It was true…the fireplace we’d picked out was a darkish brown, but the one we were currently assembling was almost black. I immediately called the store to complain that we’d been sent home with the wrong color. This is where things got nice and confusing. I gave the girl on the phone the product number on our receipt and she looked it up… “Ma’am,” she said, “This product only comes in one color.” I argued for quite a while, telling her that I didn’t care what the computer said, the item we had in a dozen pieces on our living room floor was a completely different color than the one we’d picked out. It was during this argument that I began to realize something: when we’d been unpacking all the parts, I hadn’t seen any glass for the doors. Soon we realized the (even stupider) truth: we hadn’t been sent home with the wrong color…we’d been sent home with an entirely different fireplace. My husband looked on the Canadian Tire website and found the one we’d actually picked out…it was labeled Orleans: $799. The tag that had been in front of our fireplace, the one P, the hardware manager, had pointed to several times and used to find the product in the stockroom, belonged to a completely different item.

P had gone home for the day. We would have to call back in the morning.

When I got a hold of P in the morning, initially he was very apologetic. He told me that he would make the trip himself on Monday to drive down the fireplace we had actually picked out and swap it for the one we had taken home. Okay, fine. I could deal with that. But a few hours later, things changed significantly. P called me back and said he had bad news. He said that the fireplace we had actually picked out wasn’t on sale (uh…no sh*t…did you even bother to look at it before speaking to me?) and that he could make it on sale, but only as low as $499 and I would have to pay the $100 difference.

Now, maybe some people would have taken it. Maybe to some people $100 isn’t a big deal. Truly, it’s not that big a deal to us. But it was the principle of the thing. This man brought us to that fireplace, he showed us the sale price several times. He was the one who got the item out of the stockroom and failed to notice that the picture on the box was a completely different fireplace. Every step of the screw-ups that ended with us driving 90 minutes home with the wrong item was entirely his fault. And now he was telling us that we were going to have to pay extra to get the item we had originally picked out, the item that he himself assured us was on sale for $399.

We told him this was unacceptable and he told us that he would have to wait until Monday to talk with his district manager to see if the price could be lowered anymore. We found that unacceptable as well, but decided to deal with it and see what would happen. In the meantime I called the corporate hotline. The man who answered the phone listened to my tale, sympathized with me, and told me that, unfortunately, corporate can’t force an individual store to honor a price mix-up, but he would send a fax to the district manager suggesting that they do so.

Monday morning I gave them until 10 am to call me. No one did, so I called and asked for P. He told me the answer had been no. It took all my strength to say good-bye before hanging up on him. But the best part? About two hours later the district manager called…to tell me no again.

So, to reiterate: the hardware manager f*cked up six ways from Sunday, sent us home (a 90 minute drive) with the wrong item (which, just for the record, was ugly as sin), and then refused to honor the deal he had originally told us we were getting. The district manager then reiterated that they were refusing to honor the deal, because apparently Canadian Tire can’t afford to lose $100.

And that’s why my husband and I, after returning the ugly-ass thing they had sent us home with, have decided to boycott Canadian Tire. Because when a multibillion dollar corporation refuses to honor their own f*ck-ups over $100, that’s someone that I really, really don’t want to do business with.

“Aim for the top-right corner!”

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

36. Goal setting

That’s a little hockey joke up in the title of the post, in case you missed it. 😛

If there’s something I think we can all agree on, it’s that goals are important. Without goals we cannot advance, we cannot attain. It could be something as simple as wanting to pay off a loan sooner. Without actively making the decision to set that goal for yourself, your loan will stay exactly where it is. By setting the goal, by choosing to want something better, you’re taking the first step in setting yourself up for attainable advancement.

The problem with goals is that most people don’t understand how to make a proper one. Most people set themselves up for failure by creating goals that aren’t well thought out. Common issues are creating a goal that is too broad, or too ambitious, or that neglect to take important personal factors into account. For example, take the common goal of weight loss:

Too Broad
“I want to lose weight.”
This goal is about as broad as you can get. Think about it for a moment…how are you going to lose weight? Are you going to eat less? Different kinds of foods? More vegetables? Less fats? Are you going to exercise? What kind of exercise? Running? Spinning class? P90X? And what about the fine details? How much weight do you want to lose? How fast? Neglecting to narrow down your goal leaves you open to far too many possible points of sabotage. You might exercise your ass off, but neglect to monitor your eating habits and thus fail to accomplish anything. You might lose weight, but not as fast as you had hoped and find yourself discouraged enough to give up. If you figure out all the details ahead of time, and stick to them, you’re much more likely to progress.

Too Ambitious
“I want to lose 15 lbs in a month!”
It should come as no surprise that setting goals that are too ambitious (in other words: damn near impossible) will also set you up for failure and disappointment. In this example you would have to do something very extreme, and probably very unhealthy, to reach your goal, since a healthy and plausible rate of weight loss is about 1 lb a week. If you set yourself a goal that is so ambitious that there’s no way it’s actually going to happen, you’re just going to end up frustrated that you can’t achieve it.

Neglect to Attend Important Factors
“I’m going to lose x-lbs by cutting out all sweets and soda.”
This is actually a half-decent plan at first glance. Most people take far too much sugar into their bodies, so cutting that out would almost definitely result in some form of weight loss. But in this example the goal neglects to consider the repercussions of the intended actions. Presumably the person who set the goal consumes a large amount of sugar, if they believe cutting it out will help them lose weight. What’s going to happen when that sugar stops being consumed? Many people don’t realize that sugar is no different that many drugs. It’s addictive, it gives you an artificial “high” in the form of short-term energy, and cutting it completely from your diet can cause withdrawal symptoms. No, I’m not kidding. Aside from all that, do you actually have the willpower to cut out all sugar? Is this plan going to succeed only in making you miserable? Because misery is absolutely not conducive to a successful goal. When determining the details of your goal you have to take into account the consequences that may occur and your own personal ability (really, really take a good look at yourself here) to deal with the limitations you’ve set for yourself.

These three factors can be applied to a goal of any type. If we’re looking at a writing goal, they definitely apply. You can’t be too broad (“I want to be a writer even though I have absolutely no plan and don’t know what I want to write!”), you can’t be too ambitious (“I just got an idea for a novel and I’m totally going to have it written and published within two months!”), and you can’t forget to consider possible consequences and personal ability (“I’m going to get up an hour early every morning to write, even though I already only get about four hours of sleep a night!”). Ignoring these factors will set you on the path to failure, and failure will set you on the path to disappointment, depression, and a little thing I like to call “I Give UP!” syndrome.

Set goals for yourself…just remember that not all goals are equal and very few are easy to attain.

A Little Push

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

29. Encourage other writers to keep going

I suspect that it is an inevitable truth that at some point (and possibly multiple, regularly occurring points) every writer feels like giving up. Whether you’re an amateur working on your first real manuscript or a published professional having issues in editing, writers are a naturally self-depreciating breed. As my rage comic indicated, we have a tendency to flow through repeating stages of “I’m so awesome!” and “I’m such a hack!” It is a tendency we share with artists, musicians, and other creative peoples who put a little piece of their own selves into their work.

Some of this constant shift in attitude can be attributed to physiology (moods, hormones, emotional state due to outside forces, etc), but much of it is likely due to the lifestyle of a writer and the inability of people in general to fairly, and without bias, judge themselves.

The lifestyle may break may would-be writers because they simply can’t (or feel that they can’t) handle it. The life of a writer may seem simple and carefree to many, but in reality it can be very stressful and difficult. Deadlines may lead to anxiety and burnout. Disagreements with editors and agents can cause frustration and a feeling of losing creative control. Rejections from published and poor critiques/reviews can create doubt, depression, and the belief that you’ll never be successful. It’s a mentally and emotionally exhausting situation to volunteer for.

And then there’s that bit about being unable to judge ourselves. As humans, we are notorious for this, not just involving creative processes, but in every aspect of our lives. One only needs to observe drivers on the highway to understand the concept. Everyone on the road believes that they are an excellent driver, while everyone else is a dangerous SOB who needs to be arrested. It’s the same with writers, except that in our case it works at both ends of the spectrum. Either you think you rock (even if you don’t) while everyone else is a hack, or else everyone else is amazing while you’re a miserable failure (even if you aren’t).

So, in conclusion, being a writer is wrought with emotional distress, time management impossibilities, peer-to-peer conflict, pain of rejection, and psychological issues, and on top of all that you might never become successful enough to make a living out of it.

And here I am, supposedly about to tell you to keep going. Hmm…

Here’s the thing…have you ever heard the phrase that nothing worth doing is easy? While it may not be a logical descriptor for every person in every situation, it still rings true a good deal of the time. Do you think the athletes who go to the Olympics just breeze through the events without any training? Do you think young army recruits just walk through the door and all of a sudden they’re a high-ranking officer? Hell, do you think pregnant women just have a squat and a grunt and a beautiful, perfectly healthy baby just pops out?

If you really care about something – genuinely want it with all your heart, then you’ll do what you have to do and endure what you have to endure to make that dream a reality. Olympians know that they’re going to have to push their bodies to the limit, but they crave that gold, so they move through it. Privates-in-training know they’re going to be trained hard and disparaged at every turn, but they want to serve, so they deal with it. And women know damn well that childbirth is like to be a painful, miserable event that makes them feel like they’re going to die, but they want to bring a life into the world so they damn well manage it.

So if you really want to be a writer, write. Put your heart and soul into it and deal with whatever you have to deal with as a result, because in the end that’s the only true way to get what you want. You have to be willing to do whatever is necessary, end of discussion. If you aren’t willing, well…I guess you didn’t really want it very much in the first place, did you?