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).