The Top Ten Questions NEVER To Ask a Writer

003A recurring theme in conversations I’ve been having lately with writer-friends is this:

You must be gentle with yourself.

I intended to post yesterday. I usually post on Thursdays, but yesterday evening I just didn’t feel like it.

Thursday was a two-rejection day. I logged in to email yesterday evening to find a query letter rejection nestled snugly next to a rejection of a partial manuscript I sent out at an agent’s request a few weeks ago.

Rejection is part and parcel of this process. But every rejection also stings, every single time. Every rejection is a door closing.

So instead of posting, I played therapeutic video games and ate therapeutic cookie dough and stayed up way too late doing some therapeutic reading. I woke sick-tired with a cookie dough hangover and dragged myself to my computer to get in my writing time.

I’ve had to remember to be gentle with myself. So I’m going to do this blog post a day late and not worry about it anymore. I’m also going to shift my promised focus a bit, because I realized, after writing last week’s post about THAT question, that there are certain questions one should NEVER ask a writer, and that it would be helpful for the average layperson to be familiar with those first.

So, if you love a writer, or if you’re just trying to avoid a thinly-veiled appearance as The Nasty Puppy-Kicking Evil Villain Overlord in someone’s next book, take notes. Here are…….

The Top Ten Questions NEVER To Ask A Writer

1) Have you considered self-publishing?

2) How’s the writing going? This is the question everyone always asks writers. You’ve asked it yourself, even if you are a writer. I’m pretty sure I asked it at least twice in the past twenty-four hours, and writer-friends, I am deeply sorry. The problem with this question is that you’re going to get one of three responses:

  • [blank stare]
  • a forty-five minute book talk
  • a concentrated burst of angst beside which pales any late-night conversation you ever had in high school when your best friend called you because she was really in love with that person who she was pretty sure didn’t know she existed and she wasn’t going to have a date to prom and she was going to die alone and unloved and her life was definitely over and TEARS.

No writer in the history of the universe has ever answered this question with a simple, “Fine, thanks.”

3) What’s your book about? Two possible responses to this one:

  • [blank stare] Synopses are EVIL, and only evil people ask for them. If we could have told you the story in a few concise sentences, we wouldn’t have written the dang book.
  • a forty-five minute book talk, in which we tell you the entire story and then dissolve into apologetic insecurity because we have suddenly realized that this thing over which we have labored for the past weeks/months/years/decades of our life is The Worst Book EVER.

4) Can I interrupt you for a second? No. You may not. But you just did. It’s just a second, but it only takes a second and the Muse has left the building because she is a fickle mistress and she hates us. We will never write anything this good ever again and you are now the Visitor from Porlock, and this rhymes with “morlock,” you eloi-munching, literature-hating monster. A non-question corrollary to this one is the dreaded “You look like you’re really concentrating.” Um, not anymore.

4) How can you make up stories in your head? This one stymies us. Are there people who don’t make up stories in their heads? Are there people who don’t write? Is it possible that not everyone makes up stuff and overthinks things and lies awake overanalyzing everything all night long? What madness is this?? Thirty seconds after you ask this, we stare at you blankly, then realize you asked us something.

5) Can I read your book? MAY. “MAY I read your book?” If you can’t, the future of literature is dead.

6) Fine. MAY I read your book? Possible responses:

  • If we are published, on a bad day: Why the heck haven’t you already read our book?
  • If we are published, on a good day: HERE ARE TWENTY COPIES!!
  • If we are not published, on a bad day: Thanks so much for reminding us that we aren’t published. We are complete and utter failures as writers and TEARS.
  • If we are not published, on a good day: HERE IS A TEN MILLION GIGABYTE WORD FILE, NEW BETA READER!!

7) What’s your real job? If by that you mean, “What do you spend most of your time doing?” the answer is “wallowing in my own angst” and/or “hashtagging tweets with #amreading or #amwriting” and/or “eating stuff.”

8) What genre do you write? This question is a minefield because whatever genre we write, we are sure it is the one you most despise. If we write romance, you will heap scorn upon us. If we write fantasy, you hate dragons. If we write for young adults, you will blink and say, “Oh, like Harry Potter,” and then heap scorn upon us because you hate dragons, you hating dragon-hater, you.

9) Why isn’t the house clean/why isn’t supper ready/why is the child swinging from the chandelier? This one is generally asked by the spouse or partner of the writer. I am fortunate to have a spouse who fully supports my writing and gets that great literature and great culinary success are largely incompatible, at least in my world. But–to be serious for a moment–many writers have partners who don’t understand why their writers do what they do, or how all-consuming writing can be. If the house isn’t clean/supper isn’t ready/the kid is on the ceiling, it is because your writer already has at least one full-time job, and it’s not “housekeeper/butler/doer-of-all-the-domestic-things.” It just doesn’t come with the same benefits as yours. You can have clean laundry, or you can have a society elevated by profound thought and the glory of the written word. Choose wisely, Grasshopper. Consider carefully how you want to be mentioned someday in your half-line in the preface to your partner’s work as it appears in the Norton Anthology. 

10) Will you still be my friend when you’re a bestselling author and you’re rich and famous? Duh. Who do you think we are, crotchety introspective misanthropes who spend our days talking to imaginary people inside our heads and writing snarky lists? Of course we’ll still be your friends. But only if you stop asking annoying questions.

Now that that’s out there, I can tackle the good stuff in next week’s post: The Top Ten Questions To Always Ask A Writer.

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15 thoughts on “The Top Ten Questions NEVER To Ask a Writer

  1. “great literature and great culinary success are largely incompatible” << this is true in my house, too. The more into my WIP I am, the less tidy things are, and the more frozen things enter the microwave.

    1. THANK YOU! I had this fear that the second I hit “publish,” a bunch of gourmet-cooking novelists were going to come out of the woodwork and berate me for my failure to flambe whilst writing.

      1. *snort* I’m sure there are some gourmet novelists, but I bet they either have maids or grimy bathrooms 😉

  2. Oh god, Brenna, I laughed. Out loud. More than once. Snorted, even. I will share this most definitely, as I think it’s brilliant. It totally made my day. Sorry to hear about the rejections, though. Ever onward.

    1. Ever onward, indeed! Thanks, Peggy, for the empathy as well as the snorting. Cookie dough is always good for what ails me, but connection is even better. And snorting? The best.

  3. #4, #4, #4!!!!!! This one irks me the most. Never stop writing, and never stop being so real. This is wonderful, thank you for sharing. And I am so looking forward to next week’s post. [And, I can still sort of cook when I write…but that says nothing of cleaning the kitchen up afterward…so I don’t think that really disproves your point.]

    1. Thanks, Vanessa! As long as you’re not cooking the really fancy-pants stuff with imported free-range organic artisanal zucchinis or something, I think it still works. 😉

  4. Love it!

    Interesting, because I like it when people ask how’s the writing going. But definitely not any of the others. Although perhaps I should welcome the questions. It just means people are curious and want to know more.

    1. Yeah, as a general rule, I also like when people ask how the writing is going. I feel like the question is rarely about the writing itself, and they aren’t expecting a full-out report. It’s like saying, “Hey, I just want you to know that I remember that you’re a writer, and you can talk about it if you want.” And yeah, I normally garble over my response, but at the end of the day, I’m still going, “Teehee, I’m a Writer, and they noticed!”

      1. I intended this in a very self-mocking way, largely because I often don’t know what to say when people ask me this one. I do love that they care, but it’s sort of like the ubiquitous “How are you?” Sometimes people really want to know, and sometimes they’re merely using it as a throwaway greeting, and sometimes I’m not sure which it is. 🙂

    2. Thanks, Jill! In all honesty I do like it when people ask, because they care–but I really do end up giving a lot of blank stares, I’m afraid. 🙂 This is of course all very tongue-in-cheek, and I love it when people are curious–but there are good ways and bad ways to ask any question.

  5. Oh, yeah, I get 1 and 2 a lot. It’s like people expect me to be done or to have a book out immediately. They don’t understand how much of a struggle writing is. Just because I sit at my computer for an hour doesn’t necessarily mean I write anything decent. Also, I have a family and a full time job. It’s not like I have hours and hours of free time. It’s slow moving. But it’s moving.

    1. The moving, at the end of the day, is what’s most important. A surprisingly large number of people are under the impression that anyone can write a book, and that anyone can be published, and ultimately it’s like any field–you don’t fully understand all the intricacies until you’re knee-deep in them yourself. I think part of it, too, is our instant-gratification culture. A lot of people are horrified when they learn how long I’ve been querying (about a year and a half) and how much longer many writers have been working through the process.

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