5 Questions You Should NOT Ask a WriterPosted: August 28, 2014
Writers have a tendency to tell everyone how much we are working on our writing. That’s because to the eyes of others it doesn’t really look like work. It looks like sitting, typing, playing on the internet (we call it research), and making stuff up. We can practically hear you in our heads saying, “Get a job, loser.” So, when you talk to a writer – even a friend or spouse – you are talking to someone who already feels defensive. Don’t make it worse by asking these common questions:
1. What’s your story about?
Professional writers all understand this basic equation: the more you talk about your story the less likely you are to write it. Why?
- If you spend all your time talking about it, you’re not spending enough time writing it.
- You defuse the power of the story in your mind. Just like an old married couple who tells the same “time I got stuck in the bathroom and missed my plane” tale, if you keep repeating your story it sounds old to your ears, and you lose the passion to write it.
- It becomes story by committee. Well meaning, horrible people say, “Well it would be cooler if instead of killing the guy, she thinks he’s dead but he’s really chef at the donut shop.” Soon people start putting their ideas into your soup until it’s a cauldron of slop.
If a writer wants to tell you the story, she will. But, in the early stages of the creation chances are she won’t. I don’t tell people the story I’m writing until principle writing (the first draft) is complete. Asking about it just makes that awkward.
2. How’s Your Book Going?
There are certain things everyone hates – nails on a chalkboard, speaking in public, Dick Cheney, and having someone look over their shoulder while they do something.
Although this question is usually asked to show you care about the writer’s life (what are you thinking?) it comes off like you’re checking to make sure the writer is making progress. It’s like your mom asking you if you washed your hands, if you used soap, then asking to see your hands and sniff them.
Progress in writing is different from other things, and often backwards. Progress usually means you did 10 today and will do 15 tomorrow. Progress in writing may mean you have added 300 words to your manuscript today and will take 1,200 out tomorrow. You can spend 2 weeks developing a character and writing a subplot, only to discover it doesn’t really add to the story and you spend three days pulling it out and changing all the references to it. Believe it or not, those three days of cussing, crying and re-writing are considered great progress because you made the story better.
Since it’s unlikely a non-writer understands the crazy world of progress, it’s just better not to ask.
3. Are you planning to get it published?
There is no way to phrase this so it doesn’t send your writer friend into Hulk Mode. If you were at a baseball game and you saw a player who had been struggling with the bat for months would you go up and say, “Do you plan to get a home run today?” OF COURSE he’s planning to get a home run! But, there are 9 guys on the field who are desperately trying to keep him from doing it, the odds are against him doing it, and you just added another layer of pressure to his already slumping shoulders.
Publishing is part of the process outside of the writer’s control. It depends on agents, publishers, the stars aligning, timing, and magical runes tossed into a fountain. Most writers want to share their work through publication – but – that’s not the goal of writing. The goal of writing is to tell a story.
When you say: Are you going to publish it?
- You’re really going to show this to other people?
- You think this has a chance?
- Do you think you’re Stephen King?
- How big are you planning to fail?
- If I don’t see it in Barnes and Nobles you wasted your time.
Even worse? Asking if the writer is going to self-publish the work if that isn’t the intention (It’s like asking someone overweight if they are pregnant). There’s not a thing wrong with self-publishing, if that’s what the writer wants. But – let the writer tell you that, don’t assume.
What you say: “Are you going to publish this yourself?”.
What writers hear? Too lame for REAL publishing.
I am a commissioned freelance novelist so most of my work is sold before I write it and I don’t have that pressure. However, when I told a friend I had written a novel of my own I was preparing to shop to agents she actually said to me, “Let me know when you put it on Amazon. I’ll buy a copy.”
Best bet: Don’t talk publishing. Period.
4. You’re working too hard. Don’t you think you should take a rest?
The creativity part of creative writing is like waves on an ocean. You can sail them, get energy to propel your ship from them, and net schools of fish within them. What can’t you do? Make them. Writers go through periods of high creativity where they have a million ideas, boundless energy and know exactly how the story should come out. Writers also go through the flat waters of low motivation, no ideas, and struggle to remember a character’s name. If those periods are long enough – we call them writer’s block.
Like a galleon at sea, when the waves are moving we want to ride them as far as they can take us – because we know they will stop and we will be stuck. Maybe for a day or a week or – a year. So – NO – if a writer is in a high creativity zone they DON’T want to take a break. They want to get every single word down. When the flat water comes – there is still work to do – editing, researching, query letters, scene planning, and there is plenty of time for rest.
People who are serious about writing write every single day. Sometimes it’s work on a story, sometimes it’s a blog, sometimes it’s a journal where you write long angry passages about how you can’t think of anything to write, but always there is writing. It’s the same principle as keeping the faucet dripping during a deep freeze. If you don’t want the creative pipes to freeze and burst, pouring your future writing into the uncaring ground – you have to write. Writers know when to ride the waves and when to put up a hammock and enjoy the sunset. It’s a process. Don’t interrupt it.
5. Come on! You don’t have 2 hours to watch TV/Movie/Netflix? You gotta see this!
Writing is made of time. Every person only gets 24 hours a day. Those hours, like money that runs a household, must be budgeted. There are necessary bills – eating, sleeping, driving, and family time. There are need to haves: writing time, re-writing time, making another pot of tea time. There are nice to haves: TV time, cat pictures time, computer game time. Writers who are successful balance and control their time. That means even if the Dowager Countess on Downton Abbey decides to work in a French burlesque – it’s going to have to go on the DVR until later.
Don’t be offended when writers blow off, ignore or deny your suggestions for entertainment. Don’t accuse (“Well, you had time to go swimming, but not time to see one episode of The Killing?”) and don’t blackmail (“I thought this was something we could do together as friends, but I see you’re too busy.”). There are a number of reasons writers don’t get involved with entertainment during principle writing:
- Energy, like time, is a commodity in writing. A show that is going to drain me isn’t going to help me when I sit down to the page.
- That two hours I managed to squeeze out of the time budget needs to be used for other stuff like laundry, mowing the lawn, or a hundred other things I’ve put off.
- I don’t want anything interfering with my story. Whether we realize it or not – we absorb entertainment into our subconscious mind. Strong images or other stories then creep into our writing mind and come out in the story. If it comes out too clearly, it’s called plagiarism.
- I need something different than what you’re offering. If I’m writing a lovely romance and I decide I need a break, the last thing I want to see is a Katherine Heigl Rom-Com (well, that’s the last thing anyone wants to see, actually). I may want to see beefy Spartan men jab each other with spears for two hours, just to clear my head.
Writers are an isolative group who frequently complain about being alone. But, it’s the price we pay for the art we choose to make. We still need you, we still love you and we want to have a relationship with you. Your support is critical to us. But when it comes to writing – leave the questions to us.