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?

To Be a Writer

Recently I came upon a contest that Amazon is having. It involves writing a blog post that talks about the moment you knew – really knew – that you were a writer. I decided to give it a go, and before long I had surpassed the word limit that the contest set. I didn’t want to change anything, because what I wrote was truth, plain and simple, so I thought I’d just post it here anyway.

I've already used this, but I feel it still applies. :P
I’ve already used this, but I feel it still applies. 😛

I’ve wanted to be a writer since the third grade. That was a revelation in and of itself, but it isn’t the same as actually knowing that you are a writer. Many people talk about that moment when they knew, that singular event that caused them to realize “I AM A WRITER!”, but for me it’s a little more complicated than that. My “I AM A WRITER!” moment was less a moment and more a culmination of the passage of some 15 years of growth.

I knew I wanted to be a writer after a school assignment in the third grade. We were to write a short story, print it out neatly on white paper (this was before we had regular access to computers), draw a cover, and bind it all together with construction paper and string. I can’t recall the exact plot of my story (although I could probably locate it in my parents’ attic if I looked hard enough), but I remember that it was called “The Mystery of the Emerald-Eyed Cat”. My cover featured two glowing green cat eyes below the title, and it was all bound with green construction paper. I also recall that I signed the cover “by Tracey Lynn MARIE Clarke”, not because I had any sense of what a pen name was back then, but because I was a little gone in the head and often changed my name a bit to suit my childish whims. (My teachers just kinda…ignored me, I guess…lol)  I was very proud of that story, and my teacher at the time was a truly awesome man by the name of Mr Power who praised it and suggested that maybe I might consider writing as a career choice in the future. Though I was an avid reader, this was thought that had never really occurred to me before; but in that moment I knew for sure that this was what I wanted to do when I grew up.

Around the same time that I made my startling future career revelation, I met my best friend Kelly for the first time. As chance would have it, she loved writing too, and over the course of the rest of our grade school career we wrote a series of stories called “The Game Masters”, an adventure tale of a group of kids (ourselves and a few friends) who could travel in and out of video games. What Kelly and I had was an odd kind of a beta-reader relationship. We each wrote our own versions of the story – similar in many ways, but different in quite a few as well – and whenever we had each finished a chapter or two we would swap notebooks and read what the other had written. We praised each other for how clever we were, marveled at the amazing ideas we came up with and how “great” our juvenile writing was. We taught each other very little because we were so in awe of ourselves and how awesome we were, but it was excellent practice none-the-less, and it taught me another one of the joys of writing. I would strive daily to write as much as I could so that Kelly could read it. Even if the writing wasn’t perfect, it was a great thrill for me to have her read it and tell me that she enjoyed it, and so with that rush of fun and reader-acceptance I continued on with the belief that I absolutely wanted to be a writer.

Junior high school marked the turning point when Kelly and I both began to dabble into more mature original fiction. I can’t remember much about those first original stories because I personally tended to jump from storyline to storyline; whenever I would get a new idea I would drop the old one and start anew. Even so, it was excellent practice in creating characters and worlds and coming up with compelling plot lines. This era also marked my first foray into fan fiction, although I hadn’t ever heard the term at this point. Kelly, her cousin Melissa, and I became enormous Star Wars nerds in these days, and part of the way I expressed my nerdiness was by writing my own little Star Wars stories. I read a lot of Star Wars novels, and I got it into my head that I was a big enough fan that I could write one as well. My story involved Luke Skywalker discovering another lost Jedi – a gorgeous young girl, of course – and training her while trying to keep her from going over to the dark side. It was incredibly geeky. In these days I began to discover that I really had quite a lot to learn. My grade 8 English teacher, Mr Reilly, was not shy about telling me exactly what I was doing wrong when I wrote, and I would regularly compare my writing style to Kelly’s, which always seemed much better to me. I learned a bit of humility, but I was still totally wanted to be a writer.

By the time Kelly and I hit high school writing time became significantly more scarce. There was more work to do, and our social lives (such as they were) became more important as well. We started dating boys, we had extracurricular activities and lots of other unrelated hobbies. Regardless, Kelly and I still found ourselves writing little stories, only now they were quickly-plucked-out mini-chapters that we would write on typewriters during our keyboarding class. This time, rather than writing two different versions of the same basic plot line, or writing our own personal original fiction, we would take turns writing chapters of the same story back and forth. The “story” was loosely called “The Day the Earth Blew Up” and featured ourselves and our friends in an ever-more-ridiculous plot of adventurous hyjinx and tomfoolery. For all intents and purposes, the point of the story was to keep trying to make it more and more foolish. At one point there was an invading army of flying mini-pizzas. Yeah, we were a little bit loopy. But this little exercise of ours taught me a few more things about writing, such as the art of collaboration, and how to keep your mind fresh and new, constantly churning out interesting ideas. Though there were now many other things in my life vying for attention, I was still certain that I wanted to be a writer.

High school graduation was a turn in the wrong direction. When it came to the desire to be a writer, I dropped the ball. I’ve mentioned it before, but in these days I made a conscious decision: I was going to put my focus into technology. I still wanted to be a writer – oh lord, how I wanted to be a writer – but I was scared of failure, scared of the financial implications, and so I made the decision to move into a field in which I knew I could still thrive, but in which I was significantly more likely to obtain gainful employment. My inner child, the little grade-3-aged girl who had just written her first story, was positively screaming at me. “You want to be a writer!” she shrieked. “What is wrong with you?!” I hold that the decision I made was a good one in the long run, but it definitely set me back several years on my true desires.

I wrote nothing for a long time. As many young people do I spent my university years cramming for exams at the last minute, ripping out assignments on the bus on the way to class, and drinking away the weekends. The work load was intense, and I had to work part-time jobs to help pay for it all. My long-time boyfriend broke up with me and I started dating the man who would become my husband. We moved out on our own and had to learn to feed and clothe ourselves while somehow paying for rent and taking what felt like hundreds of hours of classes a week. At one point, sometime during my fourth (and final) year of university, I had an extreme loss of confidence in my future. I had done fairly well in all of my courses – aside from Calculus (which we won’t talk about) I made 80s and 90s in most of them – but I had this moment when I looked at myself and thought, “What the hell am I doing?” I had no idea what kind of career I was going to end up with, I had no confidence that it was going to be something I actually enjoyed or was good at, and I’d already spent upwards of $40,000 to come to this conclusion. It was around this time that Kelly reintroduced me to what we now know is fan fiction. She’d been reading a ton of the stuff on FanFiction.net, and encouraged me to do the same. The result was somewhat different; I ended up writing on the website. I didn’t really have the time to be writing, but I became somewhat obsessed and did it anyway. The one story I managed to complete, a Harry Potter fan fic called “Cry of the Wolf”, became surprisingly popular on the website, and with that I remembered something: I still wanted to be a writer. I had put a lot of time and effort into becoming a technologist, and I was going to finish that journey for sure, but all the time, no matter what else I did, I still wanted to be a writer.

It’s been seven years since I completed my university degree. In that time I got a job, moved away from home for it, bought a car, married my husband, bought a house, gave birth to my daughter, lost my job, found a new one that required me to travel back and forth across the country, and recently got laid off from that one because the job is over. And throughout all that I kept writing whenever I could. I wrote more fan fiction, I participated in several NaNoWriMo‘s, I set daily word count goals for myself, and I started this blog. I did all of this because regardless of what else might be going on around me, of the turns my life had taken, I still wanted to be a writer. Notice that I keep using that phrasing, over and over again: wanted to be a writer. That’s the phrasing I always used in my head when I thought about myself. I always used a future tense.

“I want to be a writer.”

“I’m going to be a writer.”

“Someday I’ll be a writer.”

That has been my thought process since that first story back in the third grade.

That is, until about a year ago. I’d written a zombie apocalypse novel for the previous years’ NaNoWriMo, but over the course of the month-long challenge I’d only gotten about 2/3 of the way through the story. I desperately wanted to finish it, as I’d never finished an original piece of fiction (that wasn’t a school project). So I set myself a goal: I would write at least 1000 words a day until the novel was complete. I can’t honestly say that I stuck to it every single day – sometimes life gets in the way, after all – but in what seemed like no time at all, suddenly I had a finished story. Sure, it still has to be revised and edited, preferably beta-read as well, but I had it; I had a whole original story, from beginning to end. That was the moment, though it wasn’t as much a revelation as a slow realization. Looking at the last sentence of my novel, and thinking back to everything I’d done up to that point, that was when I realized “I AM A WRITER!”

I may never succeed in becoming traditionally published, and I may never gain financial compensation for my work, but I’ll always be able to look back on that little third-grade girl and say, “Hey, guess what? You are a writer, and you always will be.”