June 20th, 2012


Frequently Asked Writer Questions

I think I'm mostly back to normal now. Instead of sleeping late, I woke up around my usual time, and I no longer feel like I'm in a moving tour bus. That means I have to get down to work. I've got a lot to do to get book 5 ready to go. I have to fine-tune the cover copy and review the copy edits. And then I have a couple of projects lined up after that (more details when they're ready). I should be pretty busy for the next few months, so it's good I had a little vacation. Not that it was a restful vacation, but it was definitely a change of pace, and that helps recharge the mind.

For this week's writing post, I've got a fun topic suggested by a friend: things people say to you when they find out you're a writer. Some of these apply whether you've just decided to try writing a book or you've hit the bestseller list, while others apply more to published authors.

I think the number one thing all writers, published or otherwise, hear from others is "I've always wanted to write a book." Whether or not this is irritating depends on the attitude in which it's said. Most people are just making conversation or expressing admiration that you're actually doing something they've only thought about doing. Then there are those who think writing must be easy, that anyone can do it because we all know how to write, and that churning out a book is a good get-rich-quick scheme. Or there are those who seem to think they've reinvented the wheel, that they know a way to write a book that will somehow be better and more successful than what those idiots doing it now are doing, and as soon as they find the time, they'll have instant success. And there are the "I don't really read much, but how hard can writing be? When I retire, I'll write a bestseller" people. They sometimes get my snarky "I think I'm going to take up brain surgery on weekends after reading a how-to book" response, though the best response to most of these people is to smile and nod and look for an escape route. If I'm feeling particularly nasty, I'll ask the next time I see them how the book's going, since most people who say they're going to write a book never even start, and most of the people who actually start never finish once they start and realize how difficult it really is.

The next most frequent thing said to writers is along the lines of "I have a great idea for a book. I could give it to you, you could write it, and then we'll split the profits." Most of the time, the great idea is some variation on their life story, where something has happened to them that they think would make a great book. Oddly, the people who really have had something book-worthy happen to them never say this. It's always the people who've had some minor personal trauma that's not that unique who think no one has ever experienced anything like that, so the world must know of their pain and triumph. That's another "smile and nod" situation, or else I say I have a backlog of ideas of my own to write, enough to keep me busy for years, and along the way I'll probably come up with even more ideas. I then encourage them to write their own story, because no one else can tell it like they can (that's me being diplomatic).

Another one both aspiring and published writers hear a lot is along the lines of "Am I in it?" or "Can I be in it?" I've found that a lot of the people in my life have a tendency to read my books with a fine-toothed comb and try to find themselves in them or figure out which characters respond to real-life people I know. Or else I get a lot of "You should base a character on me!" Sometimes when I meet people they'll ask if they're going to end up in a book. I even had a lawyer ask me that when I was on jury duty. I do occasionally steal traits from real people and put them in characters, and sometimes people close to me who know those real people will recognize those traits, but then I also get fan letters from people I've never met who claim they know people just like that. I generally tell people that I write fiction, and while I may use details and traits, I never just put a real person into a book because I create the characters I need to tell a story. If I'm feeling snarky, I may say something like, "Well, first you'd have to do something heroic." I forgot what I said to the lawyer, but it was along those lines. I may have asked if he had magic powers, and if not, he wouldn't make it into one of my books. As I recall, that was one of the rare times when I didn't get put on the jury.

Then once you have a book published, you get the questions like "Can I have a copy?" or "Can I have an autographed copy?" or "How can I get a copy?" Most of the time, that means, "Give me a free copy." Unless they come right out and demand that I give a copy, I play dumb and assume they're asking me how they can obtain a copy, and then I'll say they can buy one at a bookstore or online, and then I'd be happy to autograph it for them, or I'll tell them when I'm having a booksigning. I guess I'll have to think of a different answer now that I'm digitally publishing the next book. If they do ask outright for a free copy, it's usually with the (mistaken) idea that I have an unlimited supply of free copies. Then I go into lecture mode. I only get about 24 copies for free. I give some of those to family members (who also insist on buying copies to support me -- if my mom buys a copy of my book, you can too) or to people who helped me with research or who did beta reads. The rest I usually end up sending to my agent, who needs them to send to film agents or foreign rights agents to try to get additional contracts. In fact, I usually end up buying more books for that purpose. Any left over are used for promotional purposes -- contest giveaways, to go in conference gift baskets or goody bags, charity auctions -- or for contest entries. Most contests require from three to five copies, with additional copies required if the book makes the final round. And then I explain that I get paid a percentage of each copy sold. That's how I earn my living, and the publisher bases decisions of whether to publish more books on how well the other books have sold. Asking me for a free book is like me asking them to do their job for free. I've been known to chirp, "Sure, and you can do my taxes for me!" or whatever it is they do for a living. Guilt also works -- if I can't count on my friends to support me and buy my books, then who can I count on?

Most people aren't so rude as to ask specific questions about money, but there are veiled remarks hinting at it, usually with the assumption that all authors make JK Rowling/Stephen King/Nora Roberts money and live lifestyles of the rich and famous. Once I stop laughing, I may attempt a little education, or I may just remark that I make less money as an author than I made working at a PR agency, but I'm much happier and I'm willing to make sacrifices in order to live my dream.