Sunday, April 13, 2014

What not to say to a writer


Last week I went to a party. An unusual event in itself for me, but this was doubly unusual because it was a party of non-writers. Over the last few years my few social gatherings have tended to be at writing conventions, so I find myself largely Among My Own Kind, as it were.

However, this was different. I found myself in a group of people, very few of whom I’d met previously, and none of whom were writers. Not only that, but they didn’t quite have a handle on exactly what it was I did for a living.

It is a bit of a peculiar occupation for those not involved in it to grasp, I admit, and I’ve often discovered that when people don’t understand what you do, they are—unintentionally, I’m sure—incredibly rude about it. Now, don’t get me wrong. These were otherwise terribly nice people, but after a while I started to play Writer’s Insult Bingo, and very nearly scored a Full House.



“So, how much do you make from this book writing thing, then?”
Now, I’m sure this was asked with only genuine curiosity in mind, to find out if so nebulous a career was one that could be pursued as a career, and not merely as a hobby. Unfortunately, the Brit in me finds discussing money all rather vulgar, so I contented myself with saying, “I make a living, thank you.”

“Are you likely to have written anything I might have read?”
This is one of those questions that’s impossible to answer unless you happen to know the person and their reading habits very well indeed. In which case, they wouldn’t need to ask, would they? But it’s the implication that, naturally, you’re not famous enough for them to have heard of, because you haven’t written one of those books that everybody seems to have read almost as a matter of course, like THE DA VINCI CODE or FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. Quite what they’d do if you said, “Well, yes, actually. I am Dan Brown, but this evening I’m off duty …” I have no idea.



“Oh, I don’t read.” (usually said with a certain amount of pride)
I struggle not to react to this one. A very good friend came up with the perfect response. After introducing me to a new acquaintance as “ … the well-known crime writer …” he was met with this and without hesitation came back with this straight-face reply: “Oh, we can teach you!” I am also reminded of Mark Twain’s famous quote to the effect that what discernible difference is there between people who don’t read, and those who can’t read? I managed not to come out with this one at the party either. Heroic what restraint I have, isn’t it?

“I only read one book a year—on holiday—and I download that from one of these free sites.”
Lovely. This is like telling someone who owns a clothing boutique that you’d rather walk round naked than  buy clothes, but on the rare occasions when you do happen to need a new jacket, you shoplift it without a hint of shame …



“I’d write a book … if only I had the time.”
Because of course, that’s all you need in order to write a novel—the time. No talent, no persistence, no ability to create believable characters, a salient plot, a meaningful theme or a realistic setting. Nope, all you need is the time. And the implication here is that they have far more important things to do with their time anyway.

“I’m going to write a book, based on my experiences as (cue drum roll) an accountant!”
I’m sure very exciting things happen when you’re an accountant. I recall an old Dick Francis book where the main character was involved in just that profession and I seem to recall that all those books kept me turning the pages until the wee small hours. And while I would never cast doubt on anyone’s literary ambitions, this would need a careful approach in order to work successfully without giving away professional confidences. After all, it worked for a certain country veterinary surgeon some years ago, didn’t it?



“I read one of your books … I haven’t read any of the others, though.”
Now, I know what was behind this remark. It was said because I’d put a relative into the book in question as a cameo character and she wanted to see how he was portrayed, but it came over as meaning that once was more than enough, and the experience put her off wanting to read any of my other work. Although, for all I know that may have been exactly what she meant. In which case I’ll get me coat …

“I haven’t read any of your books, but I just borrowed one from my friend.”
This is a bit of a double-edged one. Yes, it’s nice that the person was prepared to give my work a try, but if they don’t want to take the risk and shell out money when it might be not to their taste, I’d far rather they said they borrowed a copy from their local library. This ensures that the author is paid nearly sixpence in Public Lending Right earnings and—more importantly—keeps the libraries used and funded.



“Oh, here’s an idea for a book for you …”
OK, so I didn’t get this one at the party (part of the reason I failed to be able to call, “House!”) but it happens quite a lot. In truth, I have more ideas for books kicking around than I know what to do with, and even if I hadn’t I’d be very reluctant to use one suggested by someone else. After all, if they tell you the idea and you then write it, perhaps to some success, what kind of a royalty do they expect for their part? A good idea can be totally ruined if it’s badly executed, just as brilliant writing will rescue a so-so idea.

“I wouldn’t mind reading one of your books, if you’ve got one lying around anywhere.”
This has been said too many times for me to count. I am given very few free books to give away, and usually I do so to people who’ve been very helpful in allowing me to pick their brains during the writing process, and are mentioned in the acknowledgements. The idea that I am given a boxful to hand out to people who may do me the honour of giving the book a casual onceover is wearying. Enough people already expect the blood of my labours to be given away for nothing. It implies you think what someone does has no commercial value.



“Where do you get your ideas?”
This also was not one I heard at the party, but it’s so common at writing talks and events that I had to include it here. The truth is, if you have to ask then you are not a writer. Ideas are everywhere. They surround and absorb us. Every news item, documentary, overheard comment or chance remark—all are rich with possibilities. I developed a theory years ago that writers may have some form of mild autism.

After all, the human brain is being constantly bombarded with information, far too much to react to, but we filter out everything we don’t need. The autistic mind lacks that filtering system, which is why people with autism often have photographic memories and the facility with numbers or ability to draw remarkably accurately. In the case of a writer, we pick up threads of ideas that most people miss. With last year’s Charlie Fox novella, ABSENCE OF LIGHT, I sat in a fascinating lecture at the local WI by a senior Home Office pathologist about his work reconciling the bodies from the Christchurch earthquake. All the while I was scribbling furiously in a notebook when just about everyone else listened and enjoyed, I’ve no doubt, but without the urge to take the basic idea and go, “What if …?”

I’m sure everyone must have come across their own favourite insults, not only to writers, but towards any profession. Care to share your favourites?



This week’s Word of the Week is agraphia, meaning an inability to write, although it differs from the usual writer’s block as it is defined as a language disorder resulting from some form of brain damage. It is noted that there’s no direct treatment for agraphia, although some people can learn techniques to help them regain a portion of their previous writing abilities. It is often accompanied by aphasia­ (speechlessness) and alexia (the inability to understand written words).


41 comments:

  1. So true, Zoe. With respect to the "Where do you get your ideas from?" question, I either answer "I read", or that every story in the newspaper, no matter how long or short, has a novel associated with it. I agree that if someone asks that question, then he/she isn't going to be a writer.

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  2. A character in one of our short stories - who is a fiction writer - complains that he's always asked the where-do-you-get-your-ideas question. To shut up the questioner, he tells them he wakes up in the morning and the idea has come to him in a dream. He notes that this is complete BS. But the idea for that story arose in exactly that way... So maybe it's not such a bad way out of the question!

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    1. The other problem is that if you tell people you're a writer they constantly josh, "Ooh, be careful what you say to Zoë, otherwise we're all going to end up in her next book. Ho ho."

      Occasionally I tell them that people usually have to pay good money to appear in my book.

      I never tell them that for them to be in my book they would have to display some kind of character trait that was, at the very least, interesting ...

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  3. Oh my goodness Zoe! You’ve made me realise that I deny what I do. With both professional hats on. Saying I am an osteopath immediately results in A N Other removing an item of clothing and giving me a case history of some rash that has all medical science defeated. Saying I am a Crime Writer once got me verbal abuse for being responsible for all the serial killing in the world. OR, one that stung until I sent them a copy of my bank statement purely for revenge - ‘She is actually (emphasis on the actually), a good writer, if she tried harder she could write a proper book.’
    So I say I am with the revenue. And watch the slow pallor of panic creep across their skin. My friend, who is with the revenue in reality, says that he is a taxidermist!

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    1. I think I may employ your method, Caro, and tell people in future that rip the guts out of things and stuff them, too.

      And that in my spare time I'm a taxidermist.

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  4. Zoe, this piece inspired me. I thought of what I will say when people tell me they don't read: "Well, they do say ignorance is bliss. Is it?"

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    1. Nice response, Annamaria. There's always a sympathetic face, a gentle arm pat, and a murmured, "Aw, never mind ..."

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    2. You can always use the southern women's phrase "well now bless your heart". Translated it means "well now aren't you the biggest idiot I've come across in a long time". They will never know you just put them down hard but they will always question it in the back of their minds!

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  5. I bought you book. I read your book. I liked your book, and I loved this blog.

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    1. Hooray. And what a damned fine splendid person you are!

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  6. This was perfect, Zoe, so much so that I'm going to appropriate some of your answers as my own. I've been asked those same questions, though never in a BINGO bombardment evening (you obviously were attracting a lot of attention:)), but the one I get most by far is #1.

    I'm certain it's innocent curiosity on the part of some triggered in part by the questioner knowing I gave up my position as a name partner in my own NYC law firm to write full time. But for others--those who equate money with societal relevance--it's an effort to validate their twisted insecurities by dismissing one who's chosen to follow the creative muse as no one of meaningful consequence.

    I have very little patience for the latter sort, certainly no desire to carry on the conversation, nor though do I want to make them comfortable in their prejudices. So, when asked,"How much do you make from this book writing thing?" I fix my eyes on theirs and say, "To be perfectly honest with you, [put name here], far more than I ever imagined in my wildest dreams." And if a followup question comes--generally along the lines of "What's the matter, you don't want to tell us what you really make?--I shake my head, put my hand on the questioner's shoulder and say, "Come on, [name here], surely as person of substance you know better than I that is the sort of a question your accountant has made you vow never to tell any one other than the Revenuers."

    That leaves them perplexed, possibly insecure, and at times suddenly afflicted with aphasia and anxious to walk away as soon as possible.

    I just love it. And, besides, it's all true :).

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    1. I usually just say I keep the wolf from the door and let them buy me a drink. Fortunately, I favour cheap drinks.

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    2. I thought you would have said the Fox.

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    3. Much harder to keep the Fox from the door in my experience, Jeff :))

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  7. Great post. Zoe. I've heard 'em all before :)

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    1. Thanks, Vicki -- any that I missed?

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    2. I have this idea... will you introduce me to your agent or publisher.

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    3. Ah yes! I've also received quite a number of a variation on that theme: "I've never read any of your books ... but will you introduce me to your agent/publisher?"

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  8. What a horrid party - did these people give any hint as to what they considered an acceptable profession? You deserve a medal for not stooping to their level.

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    1. Hmm, no idea Yrsa, but one or two did start explaining to me, in great detail, exactly what it was that *they* did. Let me just say I was not exactly enthralled ...

      Parties at your place are much more fun!

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  9. Enjoyed your post, Zoe. In a previous life I managed R&D. We used to warn about unsolicited ideas (Oh, here's an idea for you). Shut the conversation off immediately, or you might find yourself in a patent dispute down the road. Not good party manners, I suppose...

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    1. I can well believe that, Warren. I seem to remember hearing something about JK Rowling, that people tried to hand her their manuscripts to read at book signings, and someone else was there to make sure she never even touched them never mind looked at them, to save on claims she'd stolen someone else's ideas.

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  10. There was a lot of bitter laughter here when I read this: and I'm not even a published, well-known writer. So the fun never stops, does it? I also get a lot of: 'When are you going to finish/publish that novel then?' and 'When are you going to do some real work again?'

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  11. Oh, bollocks. I have indeed said to you/emailed you with "Here's an idea for you". Runs and hides ...

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  12. It was kind of you to say they were nice people. They certainly weren't going to get any medals for sensitivity. I have a subjective and an objective (I think) response. The subjective is, how lucky they at least understand what you do. When I enter into such a conversation, the other person will say, "Oh, so you write mysteries." And I reply, "No, I write about mysteries." That stops the conversation dead. Huh? The objective, I think the question "Where do you get ideas?" does not necessarily indicate some kind of ignorance. Would it be better if someone asked, "What aspects of the world or the human condition most affects you, and are these the themes woven into your books?" I think writers may be bombarded with material but that there are some internal filters at work. In an interview, Ruth Rendell once said she did not know where Agatha Christie got all her "ideas," admitting Christie was better at plots than she. But it might have also been a back-handed compliment. Colin Dexter said he ended the Morse series because he was running out of ideas. He, too, cited Christie. So if Rendell and Dexter can talk about ideas, perhaps the discussion is worth having.

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  13. I got asked if I'd like her to read my next book, "just to, you know, see if it's any good." I was stunned. I think I mumbled something about having enough readers already.

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    1. Sagheer, you obviously have the intelligence of a mildly-retarded oyster if you think that your post would get anyone to click on your site.

      Get a real job, and stop wasting space.

      Delete
  15. I've had people say things to me like, "Oh, I don't read that genre," or "I don't read fiction," with the strong implication that fiction isn't important. To which I respond, "Fair enough. But why would you tell *me* that?" It's like saying to a doctor, "I don't believe in medicine," or saying to a lawyer that they're all corrupt.

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  16. I probably also ask uninteresting follow-up questions to accountants or engineers. Sometimes you just say anything to make small talk!

    It is unbelievably rude to ask what someone makes, but I think most of the other questions are intended to be polite. If I met a professional golfer I might blurt out that I don't golf.

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  17. Worst writing advice I've heard: "Everyone has a book inside them. And most people should keep it there."

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  18. As for other professions, I'm a librarian and the most common thing I hear is, "Oh, I'd love to get paid to read books all day!" Umm, me too. If you see a job opening like that, let me know...

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  19. I would add one more: "Oh, ANYBODY can write a book."

    The leader of the group I was speaking to announced to the room, "Don't buy her book. I'll buy ONE and keep it in the library where you can feel free to check it out at your leisure."

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  20. Oh bliss, Zoe! Someone recently - and I quote - "let me in on the ground floor" of a great SF story idea about an imploding star. After asking me if I ever write SF (no). Then asking if I'd ever thought of writing it (no). Then if I would consider it. (Not really, no). I suggested he should write it but guess what? He hasn't got time.

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  21. One I find annoying is, "That must be so much fun!" I usually can't help retorting that I don't find writing a book to be fun at all. It's a compulsion. Definitely not fun.

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    1. Oh god I'm sure you must suffer terribly. I got punched in the stomach by a student last year. My heart goes out to you.

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  22. The worst for me, and the most common: people asking for free books, and getting very indignant when I reply "you can purchase them on amazon.com or in any bookstore". One time someone said to me, "I have a book inside of me that I just can't get out." Before I could respond, my boyfriend replied, "Maybe you need a good laxative."

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  23. These days I'm getting the question, "How do I put my book online?" When I tell the wannabe writer to finish her manuscript and then hire an editor, I get a perplexed glare in response. "What do I need an editor for?" often follows.

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  24. I realise I'm very late to this, but there is one I wanted to add. 'What do you actually DO all day?'

    A variant of this that I've heard more times than I care to remember is, 'Why do you need to get up in the morning? You don't DO anything.'

    A lot of people seem to labour under the delusion that books magically write themselves, while the authors just lie around in bed all day, drinking cocktails.

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