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?

Like a bra, unsupportive people are useless.

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

87. Dealing with people who are unsupportive.

I feel for people with this problem, I really do. Personally, I’ve been lucky enough that it hasn’t been much of an issue for me. I’ve had people in my life who perhaps were disinterested or indifferent about my writing, but rarely have I had to deal with someone who was outright unsupportive. The most important people in my life have always been perfectly supportive of anything that I chose to do (for the most part) with my life, and most people I’ve known have reacted to my writing with polite interest and the occasional, “Good for you!” The most unsupportive people I’ve really had to deal with were the occasional reviewers who critiqued my work based on personal opinion and tastes, which is something that any writer is bound to have to deal with in spades.

Despite the luck I’ve had, however, I’m not naive… I know that there are plenty of writers out there whose families/friends/spouses/etc are monstrously unsupportive. I’ve read blog posts from writers whose significant others scoff at them for “wasting time” on writing. I’ve spoken to fellow NaNo novelists whose families and friends laugh at them for bothering with something so “stupid and pointless”. I’ve heard about school kids whose parents and even teachers have scolded them for bothering to waste their efforts on “useless stories”.

And it’s sad. Writing, like other arts, has a stigma attached to it that basically boils down to, “you ain’t gonna make any money off that, so why bother?” That’s depressing for two reasons. One, that attitude in and of itself is the epitome of being unsupportive because you don’t know if you can make a living off of something until you try – that’s true of anything, not just the arts. Two, even if you’re not interested in making money, the bad attitude suggests that writing is pointless even if it’s just a hobby. Consider that for a moment. If someone works hard all day and then goes golfing during their down time, well that’s their prerogative – it’s their time to do with as they choose. But if someone else works just as hard and then uses their spare time to write, it’s all “what a waste of time” and “why don’t you do something productive?” and “what’s the point of that if you’re not going to make any money off it?”

This is a generalization of course, but it’s something that plenty of writers put on with on a regular basis.

Without any personal experience there isn’t a whole lot I can say about dealing with unsupportive people. My instinct is to say, “cut ’em loose” because people who can’t be supportive of your decisions don’t deserve to be in your life. That becomes sketchy, however, when the unsupportive person is the spouse you love very much, or a parent when you’re a minor under their roof. So I guess the best advice I can give is to understand that there are people out there who are going to be unsupportive of your goals and dreams, and that sometimes you’ll have to put up with them for a while, but you don’t have to listen to them. Stay strong, believe in yourself, and when you become hugely successful you can turn around and laugh in their stupid, unsupportive faces.

Inevitable Rejection

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

60. Attitude after rejection

This is a key factor, I think, in whether or not someone is destined to become a published writer, because make no mistakes, you will be rejected. Statistically, the odds that the first publisher you submit to makes you an offer are astronomically small. There are so many factors that many writers don’t think about. For instance, has it ever occurred to you that a publisher might really like your manuscript but still reject it? It happens. You know why? Current popular culture. You might write a kick-ass old-timey Western novel, but if everyone is currently into space travel and aliens the publisher is going to look at your manuscript and think, “There just isn’t a market for this right now.” A publisher’s primary concern, after all, is selling books and making money. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t write and submit your kick-ass, old-timey Western…just be aware that it might be that much more difficult to get published.

So back to rejection… You know it’s inevitable so how are you going to react? Are you going to curl up into a ball and weep for a week? Or are you going to push on and submit to a different publisher? Are you going to get all angry and frustrated and declare that the publisher doesn’t know what they’re talking about, or are you going to diligently go back and revise your manuscript to better fit suggestions they’ve made to you?

I haven’t dealt with this myself, not yet. I talk a big talk, but maybe I’m full of hot air. Maybe when I receive my first rejection I’ll get all choked up, tear the letter into a million pieces, and refuse to write anything for a year. I certainly hope not, but one never knows how one will react to such a thing as rejection. But for that inevitability I have a little security blanket I like to hold on to, and that’s Google. Do a Google search right now for famous author rejection letters and see what you find. You’ll find, for instance, that J.K. Rowling received 12 rejections for the first Harry Potter before the owner of Bloomsbury’s daughter read her submission and demanded the rest of the book. William Goldings, author of Lord of the Flies also received 20 rejections and was told that his book was “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull”. And did you know that C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia received 800 rejections before publishing a single piece of work?

Some writers might find that depressing an discouraging, but I find it warm and comforting. Yes, it reinforces the fact that I will be rejected, but it also gives me hope that if I work hard and stay stubborn, I’ll eventually get an acceptance. An in that way I’m almost looking forward to my first rejection letter, because on that day I will be one rejection closer to acceptance.

On Publishing

For a while now I’ve been looking into different publishing options. What I’ve found is that I just don’t get it. It’s strange, really. I’m sure it’s probably all a lot simpler than my brain makes it out to be, but whenever I research into things like traditional vs. self-publishing, how to properly submit a novel to a big publisher, and what an accepted author can expect to earn, my head always ends up throbbing and I have to walk away from the computer for a while. Funny, right? I can dismantle an industrial valve that’s almost the size of me down into it’s tiniest components, and then turn around and put it all back together again (and have it work!), but when it comes to information on how to publish a book my mind shuts down on me and refuses to comprehend anything.

The main issue I’ve been battling with is whether to go immediately to self-publishing or try to submit my novel to one of the big publishing companies. I’ve read tons of information and advice on this argument. I’ve understood very little of it. There are a few things I’ve picked out, such as the idea that you’re more likely to make decent money if you go with a big publishing company, but then again you might go through years of rejections before getting accepted (or worse, never get accepted). With self-publishing you have to do most of the work yourself and you might never make a red cent, but your book will be published. It all comes down to what is more important to you…having your book out there, or eventually making money off of it.

For me I think it really comes down to impatience (of which I have a great deal). It would be nice to see my book printed by a big publisher, to see it on the shelf of a big-box book store, and to make some genuine money from it. But at the same time, I have the impatience of a hungry two-year-old…I want my appetite to be satiated now. The idea of spending months or years submitting my manuscript to publishers and sitting at home twiddling my thumbs while I wait for a response fills me with dread and makes my eye twitch maniacally. I’m just not a waiter; I hate waiting for anything.

So in the end I’ll almost definitely self-publish. I’m just so close to finally finishing one of my novel ideas that I can’t stand the idea of waiting any longer to have it (maybe) be published. While it would be amazing to make actual money doing what I’ve wanted to do since grade school, it’s more important to me to actually complete a novel from start (conception) to finish (printed book), and I want that printed book in my hands asap, thank you very much. 🙂