Friday, December 21, 2012

6 Questions NOT to ask a Writer

This post first ran here on December 8, 2010 and is also one of our most commented on posts.

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People mean well. They do. But I believe there are certain questions you should never ask a writer - or never ask many of us.

1. Are you still writing that novel?
A 'no' answer will elicit more questions - like "When is it being published?" or even worse, "Why?". A 'yes' answer will usually result in the questioner giving you a puzzled look while they respond (with astonishment) "Really? Still?"

Of course, you could be marvelously successful and have no problem answering this question. If this is true, you need to go soak your head.

2. Are you famous?
Obviously, since you've just been asked this question, the answer is no. How on earth could anyone answer yes?

3. How much money do you make?
This question never ceases to astound me. I thought it was impolite to ask about someone else's earnings. What kind of answer would satisfy the questioner? My usual response is to smile and say, "the yacht is still on hold."

4. What's your book about?
Here's a loaded question. Some writers will take this as an invitation to go on for hours while others will say "I'm not sure yet." Some will give the genre as an answer: "It's a murder mystery" or "It's about looking for love". I've never found the right answer to this.

5. Am I in it?
The obvious answer is "no". Are you going to tell someone you've based a character on them? Unless this character is flawless and enjoys superpowers, they're going to be disappointed. I try to explain that I invent my characters - they're not based on anyone I know.

And (in my opinion) the worst question:

6. But what do you really do?
The best answer I've ever given to this question is, "I kill people (and then add softly) fictionally, of course." It's best given at a dinner table, as you're putting down a plate full of food. It does give the questioner pause. Of course, remember, I write mysteries. You have to find joy somewhere.

Do you get questions that make you squirm?

----------------
Elspeth Antonelli is an author and playwright. Her twelve murder mystery games and two plays are available through host-party.com. She has also contributed articles to the European writers' magazine Elias. Her blog, It's A Mystery, explores the writing process with a touch of humor. She is on Twitter as @elspethwrites

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58 comments:

  1. The one I have always dreaded is, "I've written a book. Would you read it and tell me if it is publishable?"

    The proper question is, "What do you charge for a professional critique?"

    It's not that I mind helping new writers. I do that all the time, but I cannot do a lot of pro bono work. A generous heart does not pay the bills. LOL

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  2. Whenever I tell people that I'm a writer I get the standard response, "What do you write?"

    Um, words?

    I usually mutter something about short stories but never know if I should have gone into more detail...

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  3. I'm e-published--have been, since 1994. I used to get, "Do you think you'll ever get REALLY published?" Now, since the first of those books has been reissued (also electronically), I get, "Aren't you excited to get published at last?" Um....

    Another favorite is sort of like the "Are you famous?" one: "Have I read anything of yours?" I'm like, uh, I'm sorry--I meant to say, "I'm a writer," not "I'm a psychic...."

    Marian Allen

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  4. I love fiona's answer..."Um, words?" Think I'll use that, thank you very much.

    Kinda' like when someone asks you how you're feeling, most wanna' hear "fine." If they wanna' hear more I will elaborate, but most don't. That way, I can save my words for writing.

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  5. Maryann; You've got the right attitude! It's amazing how many people think since you write, you've obviously got time to read and critique other people's work, because writing doesn't take any time at all!

    Fiona; That's brilliant! It is tricky though, isn't it? How much detail is one supposed to go into? I usually give the genre and leave it at that.

    Marian; I get that too, since my mystery games are published through the internet; even though you can buy cards for them in some stores. As for the second question, I love your response!

    Helen; Thanks! I'm glad you liked my post.

    MommaMindy; It IS the same sort of question, isn't it? I've amused myself occasionally when asked "How are you?" by not giving the expected "Fine" but answering "Actually, I think I'm coming down with a cold" the pause and puzzlement on the questioner's face is always fun.

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  6. 1. Yes. Are you still breathing? Really? Still?
    2. Have you heard of me? Then I guess not.
    3. More than you. That's why I can spend my time writing, and you can't.
    4. Truth, Justice, and the American Way.
    5. No. My editor insists that my characters be interesting.
    6. I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you.

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  7. Elspeth - Oh, I *so* get questions that make me squirm!! Yours, of course, are classics that I hate. And I absolutely love your answer to the last question you mention! I also get "Oh, really? And what are your other hobbies?" ARRGH!!

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  8. People always ask me when's my next book coming out. Also, what's my current book about.

    Yes, and I do get the remark that they have a book they're going to write.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com

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  9. Tim; All excellent answers. I'm especially fond of the first and the last.

    Margot; Bless them, those are the people I choke in my dreams.

    Morgan; At least your first two questions indicate you might have a future purchaser of your books being the questioner! And yes, I have met an inordinate amount of people who are going to write too...some day when they have the time.

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  10. I get asked the money question by kids at every school visit! It's pretty funny, so I usually give them a mock-stern look and say in a deadpan voice, "I'm sorry, but I'm not at liberty to divulge that information." Usually that gets a laugh from the teachers and the kids learn some new words!

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  11. I must remember "I kill people" response - very handy.
    Great list as always!

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  12. I don't tell anyone that I'm trying to write a novel. Then I avoid questions >:)
    Cold As Heaven

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  13. Hee, the "I kill people" answer will sure liven up holiday dinners.

    My (least) favourite question is, "How many chapters have you written?" Do I try to explain that chapter length is arbitrary and that word count is the only measure with any real meaning? Do I answer, "Twenty-three"? Should I make up a more impressive-sounding number? I usually go with trying to explain word count, and I usually get a blank stare in response.

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  14. I also get asked when my next book is coming out, as if I have control over this. The worst is would you read my story and tell me what you think. The last two people who asked me do this I haven't heard from since.

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  15. Makes me wonder if venturing out of my corner to give readings would be worth it.

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  16. This post is so true. I'm always amazed when people ask me how much I make. I just shrug and say, "Not much."

    That one about "Am I in it?" would tempt me to say, "Yes, your mangled body...well, you know."

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  17. My favourite answer to #1 is "A different one." Since I always seem to have three or so on the go, it's mostly true.

    #4 is fun for sci-fi authors. "Intelligent fungi"..."Comet gases causing superpowers"...

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  18. Christina; That's superb; I'm going to try to remember it.

    Al; Thanks!

    Cold as Heaven; It does come (for many writers) under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" umbrella.

    Heidi; It can add a certain note to family dinners. As for the "How Many Chapters..." question, one reply might be "Not Enough".

    WriterStuff; That is a tricky situation, since usually they just want to hear 'oh, it's wonderful".

    Kay; At least now you know some of the questions you might be asked and have some answers prepared!

    Patricia; It always amazes me too. Why would anyone ask this? How can they consider it their business? I think the next time I'm going to say "Less than JK Rowling."

    Grace; Those are excellent answers. Well done.

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  19. I often get asked if I'll have lunch or coffee with someone I just met so I can tell them about how to become a writer or how to get published. I love doing this, so sometimes I say yes. But if I said yes to all of them, I'd never get to have coffee or lunch with any of the wonderful friends, colleagues, and clients who are already in my life. I love helping people and making new friends, but there's only so much of me to go around. I guess this isn't really just a writer's problem, but a socializing and prioritizing problem many people face.

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  20. Wow. Killer post. For me it's the money question. Totally tacky. And I'm never going to answer. This is business. But I still try to evade it in a friendly way.

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  21. It's lovely to know that at least we're all in the same boat! I dread the question asking what my book is about! I never know how to sum it up in 5 words or less because you know that's all they really want to hear.

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  22. 1. That old thing? That is so last year!

    2. Of course! Everyone who is anyone has heard of me. Haven't you?

    3. Loads. But I can't get Jackson's head quite right!

    4. Stuff

    5. Oh yes. *evil laugh*

    6. Well really I'm a lexicographic construction worker

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  23. This is why I don't tell people that I write. This is also why I squirm whenever my partner tells people that I do. For me, it feels like a guilty secret because even with positive reactions, the questions can be downright silly.

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  24. Back when I was a stripper I used to get very similar questions. I'd just make stuff up and not even try to keep it straight. Hence my proclivity for fiction today.

    I have to say, pole dancing paid a lot better than writing. The shoes were pure torture, however. LOL

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  25. Cara; You sound as if you'd be a wonderful person to know in real life. We all have to set our own priorities.

    Robin; Wow, thanks! Isn't the money question tacky? I can't imagine lawyers getting asked it. I think it's got something to do with people's fascination with people in the arts.

    Heather; It really is a tricky one to answer, isn't it? And yes, it's nice to know there are many who face the same problems with these type of questions.

    Dominic; Your answer to my last question is beyond brilliant. Stellar.

    Shannon; I think many writers are somewhat reticent about letting the knowledge that they write get known. Sooner or later, though, it gets out there.

    ParisLove; At least we can all write wearing whatever shoes we wish! Not to mention the joys of writing in our pajamas.

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  26. Ha! Loved those questions!

    But here is the topic from a different angle: Do you have friends who know that you write and NEVER ask you any questions about your writing? I have a couple of close friends who knew I was working on a novel for several years. We got together socially, told each other about our lives. They told me what they were doing but never once asked how my writing project was going. I don't know if it was lack of interest or their inability for form a question about writing or something else. I normally don't talk about my work, unless I'm asked, since I don't want to bore people who have no interest. But the whole thing just puzzled me.

    In general, though, my friends do ask questions, the normal one being "What is your book about?" I find that a very valid question and I try to just answer it as simply as possible. "It's a love story between two artists," etc.
    Christa

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  27. The post and comments are great!

    The one I hate to hear is:

    I have this great story but I don't write, could you write my story for me?

    Donna V.
    http://donnasbookpub.blogspot.com

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  28. Christa; I'm glad you liked my post and I agree everyone's comments have been interesting - I've certainly enjoyed the interchange. "What's your book about" is certainly a legitimate question, I guess the tricky part for many of us is the length of our answer. Also, there are many writers who are superstitious about discussing a current work.

    Donna; I've never been asked that question - thank heavens!

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  29. Sometimes I wish people didn't know I was TRYING to get published. "When is your book coming out?" That one makes my stomach churn...

    Please, it's my dream and I'm working on it!

    I love the "I kill people," statement. Made me giggle! Thank you~Kim

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  30. Heh, great post.

    For writers for younger audiences, the "So when are you going to write a real book?" is definitely up there, too.

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  31. To question 6 my answer is always, "I'm a professional liar."

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  32. I prefer answers that would give pause.

    1. Which one?
    2. That depends, are you well-versed in pop culture? (if so, why would you ask? If not, then yes, I'm famous).
    3. Depends on how many books I sell.
    4. People. They actually do things in it, too.
    5. Would you like to be? I am always needing to up the body count.
    6.You mean you don't KNOW? See question 2.

    Worst question I get is: "So when are you getting that novel published?"

    You mean - the unrevised one that I have yet to send to an agent? Or the one I haven't finished yet? Hmmm. Let me get back to you on both counts. Thanks for asking.

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  33. Love this post, I've been asked all these questions, but the most hated one is "how's the sales going?" I wish I had a witty answer but my standard is "not well enough to quit my day job"
    Does anyone have a better one?
    The next statement is.."I should write a book too, how hard can it be!" I try not to snort on that one!

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  34. Christa P: This happens to me all the time. When you are writing/revising/submitting/revising etc. a novel it's hard to come up with "updates." Even the FB status updates of my writer friends are pretty boring. I've slowed my FB posting frequency because it's always the same: "I'm writing."

    Maybe my friends have stopped asking me because they know they'll hear me screaming from the roof if something big ever happens. Until then, you know what I'll be doing.

    Thanks, Elspeth--this has been a lively discussion!

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  35. Made me laugh. My least favourite question is the 'What do you write?' question. Maybe I should say I can't tell you because I'm a writer. I don't talk well.

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  36. This happened to me while I was WRiter in Residence in another town for six months. Instead of giving the standard response of 'what do you do?' as teacher, I said: I'm a writer.
    Him:Oh, written anything?'
    Me: Yes, twenty books.
    Him:Wow. Any of them published?
    Me: Yes, twenty books.
    Him:Oh, so you're a REAL writer. What's your name again?
    Me: Tania Roxborogh.
    Him: Never heard of you.

    I remember that situation to keep me humble.

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  37. That's a great post:-)
    When my parents in law stay for the weekend they tend to leave early Monday morning. I am always asked what time my husband set off for work and this is always swiftly followed by, 'And what are you (cue pointed emphasis) going to do today?'
    Hmmmmm

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  38. Humour is what it's all about!
    Some days the quick wit and retort are easier than other days, eh.
    Thanks also to Heather, Dominic and Cameron.

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  39. Oh, groan, yes.

    I also get:

    - When are you going to get your book published?

    (I am NOT a publisher! What part of the word "writer" did you hear as "publisher"?)

    - Oh I have a great story you should write.

    (No thanks mate. I have more ideas than I think I'll manage to get through.)

    - How many pages is it?

    (Oh come on! What do you mean by "pages"? A4? Single or double-spaced? Paperback? Trade? Do you know how long it is going to take me to work that out without a calculator? And the answer will still be meaningless to you unless you have a book nearby to pick up and count the pages. Oh, here: it's about the same length as this.)

    Elle
    HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

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  40. I am SO stealing some of these fabulous answers! You have a great little blog here. Will be back to visit. Happy Holidays!

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  41. Ha ha ha ha! Awesome post.

    1. Are you still writing that novel?
    "No, it's a different one now." Then they say "What happened to the other one?" It's in the trunk after twenty-five rejections. I don't want to tell them that!

    2. Are you famous?
    "Yes, on the planet Raxacoricofallapatorius I'm a superstar."

    3. How much money do you make?
    "Not nearly enough!"

    4. What's your book about?
    I just tell them what it is. It gives me a chance to practice my elevator pitch.

    5. Am I in it?
    "Yes, you're the dotty aunt in Chapter 14." Really fun when you say that to a man.


    6. But what do you really do?
    I don't get this, but I do get "Don't you already have a real job?" Grrrr.

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  42. Thank you! What an imaginative and resourceful use of answers that I will endevour to remember when next asked. However, there are a few questions that I get asked and would love some diverse answers to them.
    1.When are you going to get a real job?
    2.Why would you do more courses, writing is writing, all you have to do is write, right?

    I look forward to any insight and reading more of the posts from this fantastic blog. Thank you.

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  43. Hi. I always thought the most common bad question was: Where do you get your ideas? Mars, maybe?

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  44. For question 4, "What's your book about?" I think I would be tempted to answer, "Oh, about 170 pages." That should shut them up.

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  45. I've had:
    "What's Your Book Called?"
    "The Killer's Daughter."
    "What a horrible title - what's it about?"
    Well, it's a 'Young Adult' novel about - "
    "Would I like it?"
    "I don't know, have you read much Young Adult fiction?"
    "God, no. I hardly ever read anything fictional."
    Good grief!

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  46. #4 is the best question in the world. I love answering that one:

    --Dragon detective babysits Faerie at a Mensa Convention
    --Spacefaring nuns who do search and rescue in the asteroid belt
    --the zombie apocalypse meets reality tv

    The question I hate is "Oh, you write fantasy? Have you read..." then they list all their favorites. There are THOUSANDS of fantasy writers, and I can either write a lot or read a lot. I hate playing that game. I just try to reply with, "What do you like about him/her?"

    I've never had anyone ask me #5, but just in case, I'm going to write in something that happens to "third zombie on the right," so I can tell everyone, "As a matter of fact, you're third zombie on the right. How'd you know?"

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  47. Favorite response to #6:

    "I'm an acrobat."

    "Oh, really? What's that like?"

    "Oh, you know, it has its ups and downs."

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  48. HA! HA! Best post ever! LOL! I am going to try your last point sometime. Thanks for sharing!

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  49. Great post :)

    For #6 I always say 'I slaughter the unholy'(I write Bizarro- it often involves killing superatural creatures). That usually stops people from asking anymore questions. Lol

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  50. "How much do you make?" If you really want to change the subject, you could respond with something curt like "Enough. You?"

    If the situation does not call for curtness*, an indirect answer might be best. For example:
    --"My agent handles the financial details."
    --"I don't have sales figures in front of me, but it's about 10% of each sale."
    --"Around 10% of each sale. Would you like to buy a copy?"

    *For example, in Korea, "how much do you make?" is a common and socially acceptable question.

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  51. Love it! Here it is Friday morning, and I'm already smiling — which has absolutely nothing to do with the day of the week. This is a great post!

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  52. This has been one of my favorite posts to visit. It always makes me think of when my kids were in elementary school and the teachers asked what I did. The said, "She's a typist."

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  53. Thanks for commenting again on this repeat post, everyone. I tried not to take it personally when it was scheduled to run on this auspicious date!

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  54. LOL, Elspeth! I thought there might be hell to pay if anyone crossed a writer yesterday... fictitiously, of course ;-)

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  55. "Yesterday" for us here in Australia, I mean.

    We're still here - are you? ;-)

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