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?

My Inner Child (Reader)

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

100. Favorite children’s book

This is akin to asking a chronic gamer what their favorite game is. I read so many books as a child that I would need a time machine and a complicated cataloging system to even have a chance at possibly narrowing my favorite down to one.

As we speak my parents’ attic is overrun with children’s books. When I was a child the local gas stations would always have limited-sell collections of short children’s stories and poems, of which I have one of every damn one. The local Sobeys also did the same thing with Disney books, so I have stacks of them as well. I also purchased at least one book (but usually three or four) from every Scholastic catalog that appeared at my grade school for the entire seven years I was there. Every time my parents took me with them to the mall, I returned home with at least one book. There is a garbage bag – a garbage bag – in my parents’ attic with literally nothing but Babysitter’s Club books. And even if you forgo all the books that my parents purchased for me, when I was a kid I was forever in the library that used to be outside our grade school. I would participate in Read-a-Thon competitions during the summers and absolutely demolish whole shelves of books during those two months.

You see, to say that I read a little as a child is a bit of an understatement.

So while I can’t really narrow it down to a single favorite, I can make a couple of suggestions for books that I loved that I think are great for kids.

For smaller kids, I like The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff. Princess because it’s a cute story about how girls can be the hero, not just the damsel in distress, and Mouse because it’s just plain adorable.

For older kids I definitely suggest The Babysitter’s Club series by Ann M. Martin and the Goosebumps series by R. L. Stine. Babysitter’s is an awesome series that is primarily about friendship, but also has lots of little lessons about growing up and lots of fun nonsense as well. Goosebumps is an awesome series of kid-based horror stories that are super-creepy and fun.

Really, I think that any book your child wants to read (within reason) is a good one. Read, little mini-people! You’ll be better for it in the future!

Contesting Your Writing

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

99. Writing Contests

To be perfectly honest, it hasn’t been such a long time since I first discovered that the world of writing contests actually existed. Mind you, I knew of the concept of writing contests, but I didn’t realize it was such big business, so to speak. Do a quick search on Google and you will find sites upon sites upon sites toting contests for those brave enough to submit a piece of work. There are contests for short stories, contests for poems, contests for drabbles, contests for every type of genre. There are fun contests amongst fellow writers and serious contests with prizes and/or publication on the line. There really is no way any one writer could even consider them all, never mind enter them all.

Personally I haven’t been able to pluck up the courage to enter any such contests yet, but for those who might be interested I offer this little nugget of advice: research the contest first. Anything with prizes, in particular, is likely to have a laundry list of rules, terms and conditions, and possible sneaky ways to bite you in the ass. A contest from a publisher, for example, may have a clause hidden in the terms and conditions that states that the publisher retains legal rights to reprint your submission without compensation. I’ve heard a few horror stories about things like this, so I urge you, do your homework before submitting to a contest.

And if I ever do pluck up the courage to enter one myself, I promise you will all be the first ones to know!

The Incredible Journey

Alternate title: Why Air Canada should be burned to the ground.

I have no more of a temper than the average person. I may even be inclined to say that my temper is a little more tempered (see what I did there?) than the average person’s. I’ve been known to let my emotions fly, but if you could see inside my brain you’d also see that a large percentage of my most violent rages were kept safely inside my imagination where they could do no one any harm (except possibly myself).

This past week can not be counted amongst that ‘large percentage’. This past week my rage grew in leaps and bounds, and those who were near me at the time got to hear some rather imaginative strings of profanity. It was all the result of the actions of a major airline that evidently enjoys seeing just how much they can cheese their customers off.

Air Canada: herein after known as The Devil’s Own Airline.

For those who don’t know, or who are just stumbling across this blog entry while surfing the web, expressing their own hatred for The Devil’s Own Airline, I currently work in the oil sands of Alberta, while still living back home in Nova Scotia. My shift is two weeks on, two weeks off, so every two weeks I’m flying 3/4 of the way across Canada, either heading out to work, or heading home. On the date in question, Tuesday July 31st, I was to head home, along with some 40 of my coworkers.

Now, the thing about “heading home” day is that the only flight we Eastern Canadians can get out of Fort McMurrary, that also coincides with bus schedules and the like, leaves Fort M at 12:20 am. If you’re like me and you sometimes screw up your am and pm when it comes to the 12s on the clock, that’s 20 minutes after midnight. While not nearly as big an issue as the others that would arise later, this is my first strike against Air Canada. I have it on good authority that many companies, my own included, have asked Air Canada to put more flights on out of Fort M, as these companies are shipping thousands of people back and forth across the country every week. Air Canada said…no. That was pretty much it. No. No, we evidently don’t want any extra business, thanks, we’re fine.

Whatever. I’m no business person, but…yeah. I’m not going to get into it.

Anyway, our flight leaves at 20 minutes past midnight. This is doubly unfortunate because the buses that ship us from camp to the airport (a 2 hour trip if the traffic is good) don’t run past 7 pm or so, so we are generally dropped off at the airport at about 6 pm. You math geniuses out there have figured it out, but for the rest of you that means my coworkers and I have a 6 hour wait before our plane leaves. Because of this extended wait, it has become a custom for many to travel down the road to the Nova hotel to hang out in their lounge, or else catch a taxi into town to find some food and/or drink. It’s a completely reasonable thing to do with a 6-hour wait time, but on this particular day it would prove to exacerbate our upcoming torments.

You see, only a few of my coworkers and I decided to stay at the airport…but those of us who did had decided to sit in the airport bar, have a bite to eat, and watch the London 2012 Olympics on their tvs. From this area of the airport we could neither see the Arrivals/Departures screen, nor could we hear any of the announcements being made over the loudspeakers. By the time one of the men  happened to be walking to the washroom and glanced up at the flights screen it had been approximately two hours since our 12:20 am flight had been cancelled.

The next little while was, of course, panic. The man who’d noticed the cancellation immediately began calling everyone back from the hotel/restaurants/bars/etc that they’d run off to and very soon the airport was full of panicked and upset oil sands workers. My buddy ran back to the airport bar to get me and tell me what had happened, and for a moment I thought he was screwing with me. I generally fall for these sorts of things, you see, but I was in fine form tonight…until I looked up at the screen and saw the big red “Cancelled” for myself. Then my stomach dropped like a bag of bricks. I spent several minutes after that texting my husband while the wings I’d been eating worked black magic on my stomach and my coworkers tried to work out what the hell we were going to do.

As it turned out, Toronto airport (which was our first of several layovers) was experiencing some pretty nasty thunderstorms and everything had shut down. May I note here, for anyone who is not from Canada or has never flown before, that this is probably the worst airport that could have shut down. Toronto International is a major hub and I don’t think I’d be exaggerating to say that more than half of cross-country flights go through there. So it wasn’t just we lowly oil sands workers who had been caught with our pants down…it was half the country.

Now, thunderstorms aren’t exactly something an airport can control. No one is blaming The Devil’s Own Airline (or any other airline for that matter) for an “act of God”, as that would be foolish. No no…the blaming comes as a result of the series of events that occurred in relation to the thunderstorm issue.

First and foremost, as I imagine many of you would also do, my coworkers and I ran to the Devil’s Own Airline desk in the Fort M airport. Surely these people would be able to give us a few answers, tell us what we should be doing. Oh, how naive. Before we’d even found out that our flight (along with many, many others) had been cancelled, these nice ladies had had their computers locked out. Let me impress that point on you a little further: The Devil’s Own Airline actually blocked their own employees from being able to help paying customers whose flights had been cancelled. Literally, their computers would not let them do anything. The reasoning they gave had something to do with not knowing how long the storms would last, whether or not the planes would eventually be able to fly, and not wanting every customer to change their flight (thus possibly ending up with some empty planes). In other words, it was a financial decision. People all over the country were kept from obtaining any help with their cancelled flights because The Devil’s Own Airline didn’t want to inadvertently waste fuel on a not-full plane. Look at the tears I’m crying for them. ._.

So anyway, the desk ladies couldn’t help us. The only suggestion they could give was to either go to the “cancelled flights” page of the company’s website, or call the hotline. I checked the website immediately, via my iPhone, but when I gave my booking reference number the site quickly informed me that it had, like the desk attendants, been blocked. It began to seem to me, at this point, that The Devil’s Own Airline actually wanted us to all just sit around patiently and wait like good little paying drones. I am not patient. Just saying.

So it was now approximately 10:30 pm, and my 40+ coworkers and I were gathered in the airport, utilizing the only method left to us. That is, calling the hotline…along with the rest of the goddamn country. The first guy to get through – after approximately two hours on hold – was immediately swarmed by the rest of the crew, the idea being that he would pass the phone on after he got his flight re-booked. We were soon stymied again, however, as the call center attendants refused to let him do this. Their argument was that it was unfair to all the other people who were calling in and waiting on hold. Now, while I understand the reasoning behind this decision, it ignores a certain issue…this being that not all of us had cellphones. We were a two hour drive from camp, stuck in an airport with only one public phone, and approximately 20% of our crew didn’t have a cellphone. This meant that those without a phone would have to wait until those with a phone were done. Since the wait time on the hotline was approximately 2 hours, that meant that some of our crew had to wait 4 or even 6 hours before able to speak to a representative, by which time there were simply no possible flights left. How exactly is that fair?

By the end of the night (approximately 1 in the morning), about a third of our crew had weaseled their way onto a flight heading to Calgary (from where they had no idea where they were going to head next), about another third had managed to get new flights leaving the next day, and the other third were unable to get anything until Thursday evening or sometime Friday. Let me reiterate that: we had been driven to the airport on Tuesday evening and some of our crew had no chance of leaving Fort McMurray until Friday. All the time while on their days off.

My buddy and I were two of the lucky ones to get flights the next day, Wednesday. Our original flight would have been from Fort M to Toronto, then to Halifax, and for me to Sydney. Our new flight had us going from Fort M to Calgary, then to Montreal, and after an extended wait we’d be on to Halifax and Sydney. The new bookings would take us twice as long as our original ones, but by the time our 2:30 pm flight was drawing near we had heard a million and one worse horror stories. The boys who had flown to Calgary the night before had gotten stuck there. A few boys were getting home to New Brunswick that day, but were landing on the wrong side of the province and would have to drive a rental several hours just to get to their vehicles, after which they’d have to drive several more hours to get home. And some terribly, terribly unlucky guys had decided to stay at the Nova hotel and try calling the hotline in the morning…their laid-back attitude got them stuck in Fort McMurray until Saturday. Saturday. So all in all, my buddy and I were feeling pretty lucky as we made a beeline for our 2:30 flight.

As we were boarding our flight to Calgary, however, I heard the first of what would turn out to be a number of vexing situations: our flight had been overbooked…by ten people. This amazes me still. How do you sell 10 seats that have already been sold? Needless to say, 10 people didn’t make it onto the plane. I can only imagine how those people must have felt, especially if they had been one of the many people who had already had to rebook their flight due to the thunderstorms. But the best part? Even if they’d been sitting in the airport all day, waiting for the flight, these people only found out they weren’t getting on their plane when the plane started boarding. They didn’t tell them until the last possible minute. The only thing I can figure is that The Devil’s Own Airline was hoping that 10 people simply wouldn’t show up, allowing these people to fill the plane…I doubt that train of thought comforts the 10 people who didn’t get on the flight that they paid for and were waiting all day to get on.

So my buddy and I made it to Calgary. Calgary was fairly uneventful, but I will say this: after a three-hour wait for our connecting flight, not only was the plane delayed by almost an hour because the flight attendants hadn’t shown up yet, but the plane was goddamn overbooked by 8 people! Now I was starting to be amazed. Again, I ask, how the hell do you sell seats that are already sold?! If this is common business practice, I want to spit on the face of The Devil’s Own Airline’s CEO. Flying standby is one thing, but you can’t sell people tickets showing that they’re getting on a damn plane and then tell them that they can’t get on the damn plane because you sold them non-existent tickets!

On to Montreal we went, and a 7 hour wait through the middle of the night. Fun times, those. Trying to sleep in airport seats is an amazing experience, really. You should all try it. [/sarcasm]

As a quick side note that has nothing to do with The Devil’s Own Airline, the security check employees in the Montreal airport take their jobs way too seriously. The girl at the front of the baggage scanner gave me the most evil eye I’d ever experienced when I asked her to speak English. The guy at the end of the baggage scanner opened every single pocket on my purse and laptop bag and rifled through every single item, bending up all my boarding passes and knocking a couple of makeup items to the floor, without so much as a grunt at me. Finally, the “random-check” guy grabbed my buddy and practically shoved him in the full-body x-ray, without ever explaining to him that he has the right to be patted down instead. All in all, we felt rather abused by the time we got to our gate.

Moving on with the exploits of The Devil’s Own Airline: after having a 7 hour wait, during which our gate was unexpectedly changed to be as far away from where we were as humanly possible, our plane was delayed by an hour because the pilot hadn’t shown up. Okay, sure, whatever, par for the course. But then it was delayed for another hour because the pilot still hadn’t shown up. Okay, now we’re starting to wonder how a pilot just doesn’t show up for his flight. But okay, we’re waiting, we’re waiting. I’m starting to get concerned because it’s going to be tight to catch my connection to Sydney, but we’re waiting.

Then our flight was delayed for three more hours. Because a new pilot was being flown in from halfway across the country. At this point the rage was palpable. Almost no one on that flight was actually going to Halifax. Almost everyone had connections to different places, most notably a couple who were heading to a wedding in Saint John’s, Newfoundland, and now had absolutely no chance of making it in time for the nuptials. Myself, I was now officially going to miss my connection flight from Halifax to Sydney. When I mentioned this to the lady at the gate desk her reaction was to shrug a little and tell me that I’d have to rebook that flight. As I’d already had to do this once, and it had required a two hour wait on hold, I decided to check the airline’s website to see if there were even any flights available. What I found was that the next flight I could get, that actually had some seats left, didn’t leave Halifax until approximately 28 hours after I would get there. For those who don’t know, you can drive the entire length of Nova Scotia in about 8-9 hours. I could have driven from Halifax to Sydney and back again twice and would still have a couple of hours to wait for my flight. As it turns out, my buddy had a van waiting in Halifax and was driving most of the way toward where I live, so he offered to drive me. I accepted and all was well, but that doesn’t make it better. For all intents and purposes, The Devil’s Own Airline stole money from my company by forcing me to miss my connection and being both unable and unwilling to help me get a new flight in a reasonable amount of time.

After that most recent delay, the gate attendant started handing out meal vouchers “for our trouble”. Guess how much money was on them? Ten bucks. Ten bucks, for being delayed half the waking day and missing our connecting flights during a time when it’s impossible to book new ones. Thanks guys. We really appreciated it, seriously.

By the time we finally got on our flight from Montreal to Halifax we had been delayed twice more (making the total delay time approximately 6 hours), moved to another gate again, and at the last possible minute the desk attendants announced (guess what?!) that the flight was overbooked by 8 people and they were hoping some volunteers would come forward to take a later flight. That is so wrong for several reasons. For one thing, everyone on that flight (presumably) paid for that flight, making it ridiculous to request that they not take it. For another thing, we’d been delayed SIX HOURS. Why are you just now bringing this up?! Clearly they were hoping that some people would, like…just give up and go home or something, but that is the most awful business ethic I’ve ever heard. For a final thing, why would anyone give up their seat on the plane, knowing that all flights for the next several days are completely screwed up and they’d be lucky to get on another flight in less than 48 hours?

And finally, to add insult to injury, as we finally stepped off the plan in Halifax, an attendant was waiting at the gate to offer us discount vouchers for our next flight. The vouchers gave no indication as to how much the discount might be, but did indicate that we had no more than 30 days to use them. One particularly angry customer (I believe he may have been heading to that wedding I mentioned earlier) snatched a handful of them out of the attendants hand, tore them into a hundred pieces, and scattered them all over the floor at her feet. Not one other customer so much as cracked a smile at the outburst, as we were all feeling that it was the calmest thing he could have done.

So, to reiterate, Air Canada workers were not only unhelpful during this entire ordeal, but they were regularly (and seemingly deliberately) obstructive. Every step of the way it seemed as though they were actually trying to screw up our flights, trying to make us as angry as possible. And I was one of the lucky ones who still managed to get where I was going less than 48 hours late!

And that, my friends, is why I think Air Canada should be burned to the ground. They clearly have no sense of business ethic or customer satisfaction at all. Yeah, I’m talking to you, Air Canada. Thanks for making me lose a full day home with my daughter after being out West for two weeks straight.