When you hear these things (and you will), make sure your mental phasers are set to “gracious, humble, and attentive.” Don’t respond the way you want to respond when you hear, for example, item two for the twentieth time. Say it with me: gracious, humble, and attentive. Be happy people are interested in you and your work, even if they sometimes express this interest through the lens of their own tortured artist that lurks within.
However, I must say that gracious, humble and attentive just isn’t as entertaining as jotting down the more snarky and honest retort that floats through a writer’s head when confronted with the most annoying entries.So that’s what you can expect below.
Disclaimer: You’ll hear some of these things quite a bit when you tell people you write fiction, but believe me, the volume and tenor of the questions changes once your first novel is released.
Disclaimer #2: I still love and treasure each and every time I get to address one of these ten things, even the somewhat annoying ones. It means I’m firmly in author-land, and I’m doing something right.
“I don’t read much. When is the movie coming out?”
Answer I give: “Yeah, reading isn’t for everyone. If I’m lucky there will be a movie someday.”
Answer I want to give: “While I appreciate your confidence that my novel will make a great movie despite not reading it, the chances are slim that it will actually get made into a film. I must say, this sounds mostly like an excuse to not buy it and not read it. If you don’t read much, you should read more, and if you’re going to blindly buy a ticket to the movie version of my story, you might as well start your “reading more” quest with my novel, perhaps?”
“You write stuff — I’ve got your next story idea. Listen to this dream/experience I had.”
I don’t have many hard and fast rules that are without exception, butlistening to someone else describe their dreams is never interesting is pretty damn close.
Without fail, when people tell me their story ideas it’s never actually a complete idea. It’s not a story. It’s about an interesting person they know, a funny thing that happened to them, or a dream that they just think is the craziest thing.
I do like having fun with these situations. I repeatedly ask them “Yeah, but what’s the story?” Turn it into an exercise. Flex your story-creating muscles. Sometimes we’ll spend fifteen minutes figuring out the main characters and some of the dramatic events that happen to them. I’ll do this until the other person starts to zone out and think the tables have turned!
“Wow, you wrote an entire book? Writing is so hard. I’m just not good at it.”
Call me crazy, but I’m willing to bet the primary reason that you’re not good at writing is that you’ve never written before?
The cousin to this particular issue that comes up in conversation is saying that I’m gifted or I have a natural talent, and while it’s very nice to say, and I appreciate it, it marginalizes the better part of two decades of writing stuff and throwing it away because it wasn’t good enough. I tend to believe the rule of 10,000 hours to achieve mastery, and then you need to be the right person in the right place at the right time (as described so beautifully in Malcolm Gladwell’s OUTLIERS). Then, suddenly people will think you’re naturally talented or born with a gift.
The only gift I got, in my mind, is that my grandmother was reading to me, all day long, once I developed my ears enough to hear human sound. Then I got curious enough to make up my own stories, starting out by writing more backstories and myths surrounding my “Dragon Warrior” video game. The progression was natural, early and fueled by passion. I got my 10,000 hours in early, and you know what? I think writing may take 30,000 hours. Maybe more. I still don’t think I’m necessarily good. I just think I’m getting better.
“I want to write a book someday, but I just don’t have the time.”
You better get started on writing a ton of bad stuff so that you’re good enough to tackle that gem of a novel idea when you finally have time, but I have an inkling that you’ll never find it. I’ve said it before but we make the time for the things we love to do, and we have to find the time for the other stuff. If your passion doesn’t compel you into finding the time, I’m not sure an extra hour or two a day is just going to pop up. We’ve been limited to 24 hours for quite a while now.
“Will you read the novel/story I’m working on?”
I’ve had some incredibly professional, nice people ask me this question. And I read their stuff if I have the time, because I know they’re professional and they can handle criticism. Because that’s what they’re looking for! Criticism makes the work better. Anytime I tell you “nice job here” it serves almost no functional purpose other than to pad the uppercuts and devastating blows I’m going to deal out when I talk about things that aren’t working.
When others ask this, it’s usually code for, “Can you read this and validate my talent and breathlessly give it to your agent and help make me famous?” And to them the answer is almost universally a polite “no.”
“Will you pass along my stuff to your agent?”
Again, sometimes I have some incredibly nice, talented and professional people ask me this question, but the answer here is a little more complex. Now, full disclosure: I love my agent. I respect his opinion and his time immensely, even though I probably hassle him a little more than I should. As a default, as a reflex, it’s almost universally a polite no because I don’t want to impose on him. The best writers I know already have agents and I don’t want to evaporate my goodwill by handing my agent stuff left and right.
Sometimes, however, I’m so blown away by a writer that I’m the one who says “You don’t have an agent? My God! Let me tell my agent about you.” And in the one instance that that happened, the writer was between agents, and even though this writer is far better and more talented than me, my agent still passed on his latest novel. So it goes.
The other, rare times that I’ve actually bridged the gap between an author and my agent, it was still a pass. “Pass” is usually an agent’s default setting, by the way. You have to really kick some ass to move that needle.
I guess the real answer here is that if you’re good enough, you’ll get an agent without anyone’s help, and when that agent says yes, he’ll probably have the passion that the representation of your work requires.
“How is the book doing?”
An innocent, lovely question. I wish I knew the details. But I also am glad that I don’t.
The thing is, there’s so many ways to get the book, so many differing price points, so many indie stores, and the whole “bookstores can return unsold copies” thing going on, that it’s hard to put a finger on it. It’s not like the box office where you get instant returns on Monday morning. However, unlike the box office, you have weeks and months to discover an audience and gain some momentum. My publisher does accounting twice a year. My book came out four days after their last period closed, so I’m going to have to wait until July 31st to get the full picture of the book’s success or failure, which is also a moving target.
What do I mean by moving target? If Stephen King sells 5k copies, it’s a failure. If I sold 5k copies, that’s a pretty solid debut novel. Right? I think. Maybe I’m not the guy to ask this question.
I ask myself, “What would I do if the book was doing really well?” Why, I’d be writing more stuff to capitalize on that positive development. “What would I do if the book was tanking?” Why, I’d be writing more stuff to do better the next time.
So I try not to worry about it or stalk my Amazon sales ranks or check Goodreads every day for upticks in activity.
“What are you working on next?”
Another lovely, innocent question. Thanks for asking. Now grab a cup of coffee because this is going to take a while.
Next is a funny word. When I tell you what I’m working on next, that means that you think it’s going to come out next, like maybe next year, like maybe I already have my second book under contract, which I don’t.
But what am I working on now? Get a second cup of coffee, maybe. Then I can describe the three novels in the middle drafts, the story ideas, the script I want to write, and the next thing you know they’re zoning out like I’m telling them about the dream I had last night.
I’ve found that asking a writer what they’re working on proves that they’re not really that good at pitching their ideas succinctly. I continue to fall into the trap where I just describe key events of the novel with sound effects and excitement and after about ten minutes they’re confused as hell.
Random lesson: work on loglines and shorter pitches for the stuff you’re working on. Someone’s going to ask you about it, and that someone might be an agent.
“When are you going to quit your job?”
I’ll take this as another vote of confidence and as another symptom of the general misunderstanding of how the publishing industry works.
So many casual readers think that if you have a book published, especially with a Big Five publisher, that your day-job days are done.
To get that F-you money, you need a phenomenal success, or a string of solidly successful titles. You can only quit when opportunity cost warrants it, not when the number in the bank does.
By that I mean, can you earn more sitting in your cubicle generating TPS reports, or can you earn more working on your stories, pitches, talking to editors, doing the day-job writer thing day in, day out?
I don’t think most people realize what level you have to be at in order to make this a day job. In fact, I find that when I have a whole day at my disposal to write, my quality and volume suffers after about two hours, so what’s the point? I like having a day job with benefits and consistency and stability. Another thing I like to say is that your day job is the solid foundation on which your dreams are built.
Call me conservative, but like a monkey, I like to have a firm grasp on the next vine before I let the other one go.
“I can’t wait to read your novel, when so-and-so is done with it, I’m going to borrow it.”
I know I may be an asshole for saying this or thinking this, and I know books get passed around and borrowed and bought used all the time, and I really don’t mind it, but isn’t it just a tad weird to tell the author, directly, I’m not going to spend a dime on the story you created for me to enjoy?
And I make it a point to get excited that they’re planning on reading it, because that much is true. I treasure every reader, and I’m not against borrowing or getting books cheaply. I’m not. I’m just being honest here and I think it’s a little off-putting to mention this to the author directly. And I get this a lot. A lot. And more than half the time, it’s someone I know, someone who I thought would get a kick out of having an actual copy, perhaps even signed by the author-guy they see on a somewhat regular basis?
And hey, I know I said I’d only mention ten things but it’s time for the BONUS ROUND!
“Can you get me a free copy of your book?”
Nope. I’m all out. I didn’t get many free copies myself, and I gave them to fellow authors and close friends and family members, the ones who have loved and supported me over the years.
But we can do a little exchange here. What do you do for a living? Oh, a doctor? Great, my knee has been acting up, I’ll get you a free book and come by your office for a complimentary MRI. No reason we can’t exchange professional services, right?
So there you have it. Ten (I mean eleven) things you should prepare to hear, repeatedly, once your first novel drops. I wouldn’t spend too much time rehearsing your answers.
Just be humble, stay hungry and write your ass off—you’ll be getting bored by other people’s dreams before you know it.