Ten Things Never to Say to A Writer
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He was one of the most notorious racketeers on the East Coast. She was a cop who wanted nothing more than to see him behind bars. But just how far was she willing to go to get her man?
Recently I was on a panel at which one of the questions was: What do you hear most often when people find out you’re a writer? My answer was, “ Oh yeah? How come I never heard of you?” This got a few laughs, but it also caused me to start thinking about some of the other conversation-stoppers I’ve heard from people over the years. Here are just the top ten:
10. “Have you ever written anything I’ve read?”
The unsuspecting writer has only two possible responses to this. The first is, “Umm, how would I know?” and the second—more common—response is to hang his head in shame, mutter, “Probably not.” and slink off to the bar.
9. “I always wanted to write a book but I never had the time.”
My standard pithy reply to this is a heartfelt, “I know! I always wanted to perform open heart surgery, but I just never had the time.” However, people have heard this from me so often I’m going to have to start coming up with something else. The implication in this statement is that anyone who can find a moment or two to waste can write a book; why don’t you get a real job?
8. “How much do they pay you for that?”
7. “ You’ve written how many books? Wow, they must be really easy!”
Yes, someone actually said this to me. I then, as now, simply stood there open-mouthed. I have absolutely no reply for this.
6. “Listen, I have this great idea for a book. You really need to write it.”
The truth is, writers have plenty of ideas. We have ideas coming out of ears, and most of them are better than anything you could come up with (sorry, but we do this for a living, you know.) Ideas are not the problem. The problems are theme, characterization, narrative drive, research, suspenseful storytelling, evocative setting, lyrical prose… isolation, defeat, rejection. publishing, marketing, and low sales figures to name but a few. That’s why we get paid the big bucks (see #8) .
5. “But it’s not autographed!”
If you are fortunate enough to have a friend, family member, client, customer, patient ,student or casual acquaintance who has written a book, and should that person be so magnanimous as to give you a free copy of that book, please be aware that you hold in your hands not only a $27.95 retail value, but the hopes, dreams, and years of labor from the giver. The only possible reply to such an act of selfless generosity is “Thank you so much! I’m not worthy! How can I ever repay you?” (you can repay her, by the way, by writing a glowing review on Amazon.com). There are many reasons why an author may not autograph a give-away book, but the chances are she didn’t simply forget. When you receive a book as a gift from an author and you return it for an autograph, you are returning a gift. Worse, you are putting her on the spot. She just wrote 80,000 words and that wasn’t enough? Now you want her to write more? Right now, right here, while you watch? The most important words of the whole book (since the previous 80,000 clearly were not good enough)? I know that most people consider asking for an autograph a form of flattery. But for a writer, the implication can often be something entirely different.
Of course, if you pay good money for a book at a signing or other event where the author is clearly present to autograph books, and barring extenuating circumstances (like she’s in the restroom with the stall door closed), you absolutely have the right to expect her to sign every crisp new copy you present to her.
4.“My cousin/uncle/brother/auntie/ just wrote a book. How can he get it published?”
Would you like that answer in ten words or less? This is our profession, guys. Sometimes we actually give workshops, write books, teach classes and blog on that very subject. Occasionally we even get paid for doing so. Would you ask a plumber how to remodel your bathroom—for free?
3. “I’m working on a book, too. Can you recommend me to an agent?”
If I’ve read your book of my own free will and I am so blown away by it that I want to see it published as much you do, I will voluntarily write letters to agents on your behalf before you can even think to ask me to do so. I’ll also give you a cover quote and help you design your web site. I want good books to be published! Otherwise, agent information is readily available to anyone with an internet connection, and when I am looking for a new agent I have to go through the same laborious submission process as anyone else. No free rides here.
2. “Will you read my manuscript?”
No, no and no. We do this for a living, remember? In fact, one of the main reasons that I started offering coaching and manuscript critiquing is so that I could set a price on my time and expertise that anyone could understand. Furthermore, there is a certain liability factor involved for working writers who read other people’s work that has occasionally resulted in nuisance plagiarism suits. I have known agents and publishers who would not deal with writers who read unpublished works by amateur writers.
And the number one all time please do not ever say this to a writer but you’d be surprised at how many do, particularly if they perceive your book is successful enough to merit their invaluable criticism:
“What I hated about your book was….”
Unless that sentence ends with “it was over too soon”, believe me, no one wants to hear it. Do you have any idea what it takes to write a book? The hours upon hours upon months upon years that we labor in solitude, agonizing over every word. The rejection, the perseverance, the endurance against all odds. We have already heard what agents didn’t like about it, what editors didn’t like about it, what reviewers didn’t like about it, what bloggers didn’t like about it so often that by now that we are bruised and bleeding and barely standing. We don't need you to tell us our book wasn't good enough. Never mind that it's been on the bestseller list for thirteen weeks, that it was optioned by Stephen Spielberg for a film starring Tom Hanks... we already know it wasn't good enough. Yet for some reason, some people feel certain that we will appreciate the opinion of a real reader who can tell us exactly what went wrong with our latest book. This actually has only happened to be once. The lady in question invited me to a party so that she could spend the entire time telling me how my latest book was so much worse than my others, and what I should have done to fix it. I appreciated that so much that I’m still blogging about it twenty years later.
With all of this in mind, the next time you are introduced to a writer there’s really only one safe thing to say: “I absolutely love your work!”
Say it. Even if you have to lie.