The thing is, friends and family sometimes say things that trigger reactions from a silent facepalm to the frothy rage of a possessed badger with its tail in a mousetrap. I think the vast majority of writers would agree with me that most of these things are said with the best of intentions, and I don't discount that for a minute. Friends and family are generally well-meaning, and probably don't even realize certain comments get under our skin or why they get under our skin. So this post isn't meant as a snotty "GEEZ, what is WRONG with you people?" Not at all. More like "I know your heart's in the right place, but..."
Every writer is different, but based on observations and my own experience, I've compiled a list of things not to say to a writer. Note that "writer" can mean anything from a multi-published author to a 15 year-old kid aspiring to write his first novel. Many of these things have been said before on blogs, websites, etc, so there's really nothing new or profound here, just things that make a writer's teeth grind.
- Any comment that compares us to Stephen King or JK Rowling. I'm pretty sure I can speak for most writers when I say we would love to have the success of Stephen King or JK Rowling. I sure wouldn't turn away a check like that. But the thing is, most of us won't ever see that kind of success. It's a rare thing, and statistically, the odds of it happening are kind of depressing. And constant comparisons to or comments about their success can rub a writer raw after a while. It's easy to feel like a failure, a less-than, an also ran, for not selling millions of copies or making the NY Times Bestseller list. Just keep in mind, for every Stephen King or JK Rowling out there, there's a whole legion of us for whom selling 3,000 copies warrants celebrating.
- "You should really...[self-publish, don't bother getting an agent, just send it straight to the editor at HarperCollins, contact Oprah, etc etc etc]" First, there are legitimate reasons why people self-publish, and there are equally legitimate reasons why many of us do not. Second, the publishing industry is a rather complex beast, and there are certain things that fall under the category of "it just isn't done." Included in this category? Pretty much anything other than "send query letters to agents, eventually obtain an agent, have agent sell the book" or "send query letters to small publishers until one of them buys the manuscript." If you aren't intimately familiar with the workings of the publishing industry, please please please don't offer advice.
- "Oh, come on. You're not busy! You make your own hours, so it's not like you have to work right then." This is a double-edged comment, and how it affects the writer depends on their workload, discipline, and commitment. For someone who's swamped, or religiously dedicated to getting the job done, it's incredibly irritating and sounds very much like "what you're doing isn't that important, so stop pretending it is." For someone who's tired, frustrated, burned out, or hasn't quite honed the discipline necessary to succeed in this business, whatever opportunity you're offering is dangerously tempting and enabling. The point is, writers make their own hours, but those hours must be used for writing, or we'll never get anywhere. Don't downplay the importance of writing time.
- "It's not really a job, though." I sit at a computer for hours a day pounding on a keyboard. I have deadlines. I have paychecks. I get tired, frustrated, and burned out. While I couldn't imagine anything more fulfilling or enjoyable to do for a living, and I have never once wished I was doing something else, I assure you...it is a job. And for that matter...
- ..."Writing isn't exactly what I'd call 'work'." Write a book. Then we'll talk.
- "I have this awesome idea. You can write it and we'll split the money!" It doesn't work that way. That idea that came to you while you were sitting in traffic may be brilliant, but publishers and readers buy books, not ideas. What you pick up off the shelf at Barnes & Noble isn't an idea, it's the 85-100,000 words that came from many hours of writing, rewriting, polishing, and editing. Ideas are easy. Books are not. Please don't downplay the work we put into this.
- "It's just one deadline. I'm sure they won't mind." Yes. Yes, they will. And even if they don't mind if I miss this deadline, it's unprofessional as hell unless there's a legitimate reason for it. As a result, they might not be so quick to issue me another one. In other words: they might not buy my next book.
- "Why would you let an editor touch it? They're just going to tear it up at their whim!" I'm sure there's the odd exception out there, but editors don't just rip into stuff on a whim. Sure, they eviscerate every manuscript that comes across their desk, but the end result is usually a better, stronger book. Writers need editors. We're too close to our own work to see all the flaws, and that second set of objective eyes are a godsend.
- "Well, [famous author] always [uses this technique]. Why do you insist on [using a different technique]?" The short answer? Because my technique works for me. Some writers outline, some don't. Some set word count goals, some set time limits, some just write whenever. Using a different technique from a famous writer will not doom me to failure, nor will using the same technique guarantee success. A famous writer can write in red ink on construction paper while hanging upside down over a tank full of hammerhead sharks if that floats his or her boat, but that doesn't mean it will work for me. Especially since my hammerhead tank seems to be perpetually on back order.
- "Put me in your story!" or "Ooh, you should write about my life!" A few things here. One, never ask a novelist to put you in their story, because you won't like what happens to you. We're the kind of people who can, in the time it takes you to say something obnoxious, plot at least half a dozen ways to take you out in glorious, grisly fashion. I for one am not above casting someone who annoys me as a nameless, faceless "extra" who gets dragged behind a freight train or mutilated by a rabid granny. So, be careful what you wish for. Second, if we actually include you -- name, quirks, and all -- we can wind up in legal hot water if you're not impressed by the portrayal. And third, you know your story. I don't. If it's interesting enough for a story, you write it, because you'll do it more justice than I will. And you probably won't end it with someone who looks a lot like you getting mauled by an angry water buffalo...
- "You're not busy, though. You're just writing." Excuse me. I have someone I'd like you to meet...
- "Why are you wasting time writing contemporary romance? You could totally be making millions writing about vampires!" Because I want to write contemporary romance. (Or whatever genre/trope/trend) Yes, I know, Stephenie Meyer made a fortune writing about vampires. Those are the stories she wants to tell. These are mine. The popularity of one genre/trope/trend does not invalidate the one I prefer to write. That said, this is a business, so there's also the flipside...
- ..."You're writing [popular genre/trope]? You're totally selling out." Look, there's nothing wrong with writing something that's popular. Writers aren't looking to starve, and if a particular genre sells better than another, well...I can hardly begrudge them for tapping into that. Is it selling out? Maybe, maybe not. But for those of us who rely on royalty and advance checks to pay bills, there are worse things a writer could do than dip their toes in a genre that has solid sales.
- "I'd love to read your books! Oh, wait, you write [genre]? Never mind. I don't read that trash." Get me my water buffalo.
- "Oh come on. Just [watch this Youtube video/read this funny blog/check out this tumblr page/read this article]. It'll only take a few minutes!" Sending a link is one thing. Asking me to drop everything and look at it right now...not so much. Yes, it's just a short video, but have you ever watched a video, then noticed another on the sidebar that you just couldn't resist, and suddenly wondered where that last hour went? You may very well be sending that video when the writer is struggling with a scene, or trying to get through some difficult edits. We're pretty good at finding distractions and time vampires; if the response is "I'll bookmark it and check it out later," please please please don't push the issue. Why? Because when you work on your computer, it's very easy for your work day to turn into this:
- "I know you're writing, but..." Stop. Unless the second half of that sentence involves fire, blood, the police, lottery winnings, alien invasion, runaway water buffalo, or Jared Leto on my doorstep...don't. Just...don't.
- "Okay, so you like to write, but what do you do for work? I mean-- wait, wait, what are you doing with that taser? What are--BZZZZZT! Hey! Hey! Don't tase me, bro!"
- "I should write a book." Okay, this one really depends on the context. Obviously anyone who's ever written a book has had that thought, and maybe said that line, at some point. Where it gets irritating is when it's accompanied by the attitude that writing a book is an easy ticket to millions, or that it's something a person can do in their spare time without any effort, practice, or failure. It's less about the words and more about the implication that this is something easy and effortless, that anyone could do it without working at it. Replace "write a book" with "rebuild an engine even though I've never opened a hood" or "become a rock star even though I can't sing and have never touched an instrument," and you get the idea. Along the same lines...
- ..."I'm going to write a book as soon as I have the time." Make the time. That's what the rest of us do.
In short, just keep in mind that for a lot of writers -- I'd venture to say most of us -- writing is not only a hobby/profession, but a core part of who we are. It's an art form, but it's also a craft and a business. As I said, most people mean well, but many don't realize how passionate writers are about what we do, and some of those well-meaning comments can hit a mark you didn't realize you were aiming for.
Bottom line? Just be considerate of the time and effort we put into this, and how important it is to many of us. The writers in your life will appreciate it more than you can possibly imagine.