Friday, October 10, 2014

Non-writer's Guide to Interacting with Writers

Most of my followers are writers, but this post is for those of you who are not writers but might come across that magnificent species as you go about your normal day. It's okay to approach them, but here are some tips to avoid spooking the sensitive creatures.

If you are a writer, maybe you’ll want to share this with friends and family, or even the world in general, so that they can understand us a little better. Writers are a diverse group, but I’ve found it’s very common for us to bond over the treatment we get from the people in our lives who don’t really understand what being a writer is all about. With that in mind, I thought I’d put out a few guidelines for those who don’t understand, because the more you know… well, the more the better, right?

Note: these suggestions don’t apply to people who do know what they’re talking about. If you are a writer, have a deep, intimate connection with a writer, work in the writing industry, or are just a super-smart, well-informed individual, then you’ll know how to treat a writer like a proper individual.

Don’t Patronize Us

The most common reaction when you tell someone you’re a writer is: that’s nice. Either the person thinks it’s a silly thing for a grown-up to be, akin to wanting to be an actor or cowboy, or they think that writing is something everyone can do, so it’s no big deal to say you’re a writer. Both are wrong. First off, writing a book is not easy, and just because everyone can put some words down on paper doesn’t mean everyone can do it. Being able to cut someone open with a knife doesn’t make you a surgeon. Writing is a craft; writing well is difficult; writing a compelling story, a full book, takes so much more than a general understanding of grammar. It takes a vivid imagination to create a world and in depth knowledge of reality to make a fantasy world realistic. It takes a keen understanding of human behavior to create fascinating characters. It takes years of study and practice to learn pacing, scene development, authorial voice, tension elements, theme building, and dialogue that reads like real life (without actually being at all realistic). Unless you’ve actually done it yourself, you don’t understand, and if you start by assuming it’s easy – well, you know what happens when you assume…

And the idea that wanting to be a writer is a silly dream is equally frustrating. Sure, it might be a passing fantasy for some folks, but most of the writers I know take it very seriously and put in the kind of effort to realize their dream that would overwhelm most folks who are too afraid to embrace life to the fullest. We know that success is not easy, and we’re not doing this to become rich and famous (though no one would complain about it). We write because we love it, because it gives us a great deal of joy, purpose, and satisfaction. We've chosen a route that we know is difficult and put all our effort into achieving success. I wish more people would do that with their lives.

Do Ask Us About Our Book

Just like any other professional, most of us are happy to talk about our work. In fact, some of us are hard to stop once we get started. So feel free to ask us what kind of books we write. Ask us where we are in the process and what our goals are for the future - but only if you want to hear the answers. If you met a plumber, you might ask them whether they handle commercial buildings or private homes. Do they work for a national chain or run their own shop? Are they planning on opening branches or happy with their job as it is? Same type of questions apply to writing. But if you don't have the slightest interest in plumbing (or writing), then feel free to skip the questions and just wish us success.

Do Ask What We've Published

It can be a bit of an awkward question, since many writers haven't gotten published yet. But it's a fair question - just be prepared for the answer: nothing. Think of it this way, if you meet lawyer, do you ask them what cases they've won? If they've been a lawyer for a while, that might be okay. If they're fresh out of law school, it's likely to lead to a tense silence.

Corollary: Don’t Ask When Our Book Will Be Out

Most people have only the slightest idea of how the publishing world works, so they assume that once you’ve written a book – poof, it gets published. Writing a book is hard, getting it published is harder and out of our control. The traditional route involves finding an agent – that means convincing a stranger that your book is going to sell and they should work hard to help you, without any upfront payment, in hopes that you are correct. You have to convince them that you are worth their time when the other fifty people who approached them this week are not. Then you need to do the same with a publisher, getting them to spend the money to print and sell your book on the hope that the public will ultimately buy it. Even after you sell the book to the publisher it might take a year or two before it’s actually in print and available in a store. It’s not a fast process and much of it is out of our control. Trust us, we’d like to see our book published as soon as possible, but asking us when that will be is like asking us when the cable guy will show up for the installation. When we get to the point where we have an agent, a publishing contract, and a release date, we’ll be the first ones to let everyone know.

Don’t Suggest We Use Kickstarter

It always surprises me when people start to offer advice on how to publish a book even though they’ve never done it and have no idea what it really entails. Kind of like meeting a teacher and telling them about some article you read on Common Core and what they should be teaching the kids – as if they might never have heard of it or don't know how to do their job. If you are an expert on publishing, if you work in the industry, feel free to share away. Otherwise, trust that we know a little bit about the process, that maybe we've done the real research on the career we're pursuing. Just because your second cousin got their collection of poetry published by winning a local grant from the Kiwanis Club doesn’t mean that will work for our epic fantasy trilogy.

Don’t Suggest We Should Self-Publish

First, there’s nothing wrong with self-publishing. But it’s not as simple as that. People offer the suggestion like you can just self-publish and sit back as your book makes all kinds of money. That’s not the reality. Sure, it only takes a few minutes to upload your manuscript and make it available as an e-book. And it doesn’t take much more to do print-on-demand. But then what? It’s one of the half a million books that just sits in the ether and does nothing. To truly self-publish means taking on the job of publishing. It means doing cover design, text layout and typographic setting, marketing and distribution. It can be a great choice for some people and if you do it well you can achieve success. But it’s like telling a lawyer that they should just start their own practice. Unless you know them well, unless you know their specialty, their industry, their financial standing, their career goals, their skills and abilities – unless you know that  and more, you have no idea if self-publishing is a good choice. So maybe you should hold back on the career advice.

Don’t Say You’d Love To Read Our Book

Don’t offer to read our book unless you really mean it. Most people throw it out there the same way they say they’d love to see your new kitchen cabinets. That means they plan to spend five minutes looking at them, nodding appreciatively, and telling you how nice they look while trying to figure out how much you paid. Unless you know what genre we write, unless you read that genre and read regularly, unless you are actually going to put in the time and do it this century, don’t bother shining us on.

Some writers feel like their book is their baby. I’ve never been fond of that analogy, but our books are incredibly important to us. We put ourselves into them. Letting someone read your work is opening up your heart to them and laying yourself bare at your most vulnerable state. If you don’t want the responsibility of taking care of such strong emotions, don’t glibly offer to do so. We’re fine with people not reading our book – we know that it’s not for everyone. But nothing’s worse than someone saying that they’ll take the time to appreciate the months or years of suffering you’ve put into crafting a story, only to blow it off like it’s nothing. Books are not kitchen cabinets, don’t treat them (or us) like such.

Don't Ask How Much Money Our Book Will Make

First, we don't know. Some books make five thousand dollars, some five million. Some never sell and don't make anything. Even those who have sold books before don't know how much the next one will make. And it's always a tacky question to ask how much money someone makes. So unless you want to follow up by revealing your salary, then show a little respect and leave the question of money off the table.

Do Treat Us Like Normal Human Beings

Writing is a job, just like any other. Writers are people who work at that job, even if they don't get paid well (or at all). If you show our career path the same respect you would any other, then we'll get along fine. Don't assume you know about it because you've read a book - just because you drive a car doesn't mean you know how to design and build one. Like most interactions, give a little thought to the other person's perspective before you speak, and everything should go fine. I love it when someone asks about what it takes to be a writer, expresses interest in how publishing works, wants to know where I get my ideas. The chance to explain my world and educate others on something that I think it really cool is appreciated. And as a writer, I'm always interested in learning more about other people and what they do. We're all students, all teachers, and if you approach interactions in both capacities we'll all be the better for it.

Anything Else?

For you non-writers, hopefully this will give you a little insight into where us writers are coming from when we interact. And for you writers - feel free to share in the comments anything I've missed. What would you like non-writers to know about us?

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