Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Things You Should Never Say to an Author

It isn't easy being an author. It's a lot of work building worlds out of blocks of imagination, carefully studying people and methods of speech, and creating an entire rule system for a universe so we can explain it to other people. Muscling through writer's block, plotting out novels, and waiting for months for a publisher's response all pale in comparison to the single challenge authors face every day, though; not choking the life out of the general public.

Deep down, we know you mean well. We know you're trying to extend a hand in friendship, and that you're just curious about who we are and what we do. You want to touch us, because to you we're strange creatures in some exotic petting zoo. Problem is that what you say is one thing; what we hear is often something else. So, here's a little guide to the most common faux pas you can commit when faced with a chance to meet the flesh behind the fiction.

Are You Published?

Sally eventually stopped mentioning her series and introduced herself as a student.
If I was keeping count, something I stopped doing for mental health reasons, this would probably be the most common question I've heard. More often than not it's just one of those cultural differences, and I have to forgive those who live in the undiscovered country of normal. In this instance the word publish is the only one in my language they know, and so they're using it to show they're following what I'm saying. That's not what I'm hearing though.

When someone asks this question what many writers hear is, are you a real writer, or just a hobbyist? We know that many times a person doesn't mean that. We know what they really mean is, I am curious to know where you stand in your professional field and what you have accomplished as a self-proclaimed artist. Here's a tip: if someone introduces him or herself as a writer, an author, a columnist, or any other exotic and wordy profession, assume they're published. Chances are good it wouldn't be on their business cards otherwise.

Have You Written Anything I Might Have Seen?

Depends... where do you shop for books?
Probably not. The reasons for this are complicated but, generally speaking an author who isn't famous simply won't have the advertising budget or the fan base for you to have casually picked up one of his or her books. This is a faux pas because it challenges the writer's status. It has an inherent quality of I haven't heard of you, so you can't be that important. Most people don't mean to do that because they're aware statements like that are rude. To put it in perspective, this question is the equivalent of walking into a clothing store and asking a customer service representative "do you have anything here that I'd like?" How should they know? They just met you, after all.

Better questions for these scenarios are, "what have you written?", "what was your last project?", or "what are you working on now?" These express interest, while at the same time not putting pressure on the author to prove his or her professional status by rattling off a pedigree.

How Much Does That Pay?

More than you'd believe, but less than you think.
This question is rude on more levels than can be expressed in polite company. The issue of how much a person makes has become less private over the years, but asking directly is still seen as something of a challenge. The questioner is demanding to know if the artist makes enough money to justify being a professional. This is, unfortunately, a cultural by-product. Lots of people sketch, or paint, or write stories for fun, so creative things are seen as a hobby that anyone could participate in. Being told someone is a professional leads to a knee-jerk, "prove it" kind of reaction.

A solid rule is not to ask an author any question you wouldn't ask a carpenter, an investment banker, or a car salesman. In short, don't disrespect the creative types. Always assume that the writer makes enough to be at the same event you are, but that he or she will never make enough to turn away a new reader.

Remember Us When You're Rich and Famous

Sure. I'll even put you in a story. You, personally.
This phrase is a variation on the "You could be the next King/Rowling/whoever is hot right then." It's something people say when they want to be supportive, but they don't want to do more than tell you they have faith in you. That's the reason most writers will ignore it; encouraging words don't do much for one's career. If you really want to support a writer then you should buy books, leave reviews, tell your friends, come to events, and generally show that you are there and you want that person to succeed. In addition to helping that writer get rich and famous, chances are good they'll notice you and aren't likely to forget you.

Do You See Yourself in Your Characters?

Sure. We'll go with that.
Nothing is more irritating than people who want to play amateur psychoanalyst with your work. If a writer composes a visceral tale about a serial killer, readers wonder how he got into that monster's mind. If an author writes a steamy best-seller, readers may secretly wonder how many people she slept with to assemble her cast. If you write a story about a nine-foot-tall super soldier, fans will wonder if you have masculinity issues.

We, as writers, are partially responsible for this. With the sheer number of times we use write-what-you-know as a mantra, and the ridiculous tally of occasions we've used the "my book is a secret confession for what I really did" plot twist, we were going to get this sooner or later. Yes, most of us will put our life experiences into the books we write. We will also talk about places we've been, dreams we had, or little phrases we've stolen from the hundreds of novels we've read. Just be aware that when you ask this question you're implying one of two things; either the writer is in need of therapy, or the writer is composing self-insert-wish-fulfillment. This question is like the lady and the tiger, except there are two tigers, they're both female, and they're both in heat, and starving. Avoid whenever possible.

I Wish I Had Your Job

Sure. Sure you do.
No you don't. You want a job where you can wake up whenever you please, have a socially accepted excuse for partying too hard, and lounge around in your pajamas all day. Because deep down that's what society has told you authors do. Edgar Allen Poe got blitzed on absinthe, Stephen King did so much coke he doesn't remember writing "Cujo", and Ernest Hemingway was an alcoholic who eventually committed suicide... that's what writers do, right?

You don't want to spend 8 to 10 hours in front of a machine that you've purposefully disconnected from the Internet to focus. You don't want to take endless notes, and re-write a manuscript three or four times before you feel it's good enough for submission. You don't want to make less than minimum wage for years until you finally catch on with something popular, or develop a big enough following to pay your bills. Lastly, you really don't want to go through the endless frustration of people telling you they know how great your job is, and how they envy you for it. You don't. Trust me.

I Don't Read

He appears to be speaking... words of some kind.
This is the most direct form of this sentiment, but there are others. Polite inquiries like "aren't books on their way out?" or statements like, "it must be hard to compete with movies, and so many other forms of media," are also fairly common.

The next time you think about saying something like this, especially if you're saying it to someone who is an author, don't. It's the equivalent of saying, isn't your profession quaint and antiquated? This can be mitigated with the proper apologetic tone, turning the message instead into, my apologies, but I don't consume your type of media. It's a quirk. Whatever your intention when you make your entertainment habits known though, tread carefully. Readers and authors are clannish, and they look with suspicion on those who ignore the written word.

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  1. Ouch! Yes, I've heard all these questions and only wish I had been able to think/act/reply as calmly, professionally and sweetly. Sadly, I did not. :-)

  2. And my personal favorite. . .. Oh really!?! You're a writer?!?! (at this point their interest in you is finished) I have always wanted to be a writer . . . I've never written a single world but I have this amazing story in my head that I am going to tell you every detail of and then ask you to please put me in touch with your contacts so I can get published too.

  3. P.S. I am originally from Elkhart and Warsaw, Indiana and have been to Valpo a number of times. Now living in the Pacific Northweset.

  4. You've covered the bases, but somehow missed the dichotomy between creative and business writing. Writing technical pieces is often more creative than you would believe;) Interestingly enough, the put-downs you list seldom surface with the latter. Must be the money. No surprise, huh?

    1. Helen,

      You know, you're right, I didn't cover business writing. I believe your statements, and I know how true they are because my day job is writing ad copy for which I am paid a pittance that I feel should be made illegal. I am fully aware of the discipline, knowledge, and creativity it takes to write non-fiction. I don't envy those who do it.

      However, I would also like to point out that it's hard to convey emotion and tone in text. For instance, it's very difficult to tell if your last sentence means "don't you find it interesting how the public views business writing and non-fiction as a separate beast from fiction writing?" or "well, you wouldn't have these problems if you took on writing projects that paid you a reasonable sum rather than spinning fairy stories."

      I mean this without sarcasm; which one of those were you trying to imply? If it's the former then I agree with you wholeheartedly.

  5. I am not an author. I am a writer. This means I put words on paper in order to keep the smoke coming out of the chimney. As long as those words keep the smoke coming out of the chimney, I'll remain a writer. When the smoke stops coming out of the chimney, I'll do something else, like robbing banks. Until then, I'll keep slugging it out, ignoring the folks who make comments such as these and nursing the misanthropic qualities that make me a better writer and a wonderful human being.

    You can buy my book to show your support. If you do, you can ask silly questions until you're blue in the face. Pardon me if I ignore you, though. I'm busy writing.

  6. Hi, I'm absolutely nervous about telling people that I'm a writer for the exact points you mentioned - practically all of them! Wow, never knew Mr. King was a coke head. Seriously, I know straight if I was asked about what I've published, I'd want the ground to swallow me up. People don't take you serious. Now I've read this, I think I will come up with some made up answers now I know what I'm up against.