What Not to Say to a Writer

I am not a published author yet (as of the time of this writing), and I may not be as experienced as many writers, but thus far in my writing journey I have encountered well-meaning people who say some really not-so-great things.

Writing can be not only a lonely pursuit, but an odd one. Let’s face it: we walk around with whole worlds in our heads, every horrible or bizarre thing we see would work great in a story, and we struggle with choosing between two different words that actually mean the same thing. So I guess it’s no wonder that a) most regular people don’t understand us, and b) because of that, questions that would otherwise be polite or innocuous are not viewed that way by us.

Whether you’re a professional writer, or you’re just getting started and have told more than two people that you’re working on a book, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve heard at least one of these comments from someone. And if the comment didn’t annoy you or confuse you, then just wait.

Please note: I mean no offense to anyone reading this who isn’t a writer, nor any offense towards well-meaning family and friends of writers. My purpose here is to shamelessly elicit sympathy from other writers help non-writers to understand where we’re coming from.

How’s your book coming? (Or, when can I read your book?) When I’m able to answer this question with “The first shipment of my new book should be here next week,” I probably won’t mind answering this. But otherwise, this question really bugs me, and here’s why: no matter how much writing I’ve done lately or how well a project is going, I’m always thinking I ought to be farther along at this point and that the writing could be better quality. I’ve taken to answering the “when can I read your book” question with “when it’s finished.” And then when they ask when that will be, I repeat “when it’s finished.” Yes, I have some specific goals set for the stories I’m writing, but I don’t feel like telling people “I plan to be finished with draft three of chapter four of book one by next month.”

I wish I had time to write a book. So do I. So do all writers, probably. Nobody really has time to write a book. Those who want to write make the time. It’s not easy. Everyone is busy with jobs, kids, daily life. But writers figure out how to carve out time and write. If you want to write badly enough, you can do that, too.

My mom/brother/neighbor’s cousin wrote/published a book. You should talk to them! I love connecting with writers of all experience levels, and I believe there’s something I can learn from anyone.  The mom/brother/neighbor’s cousin is probably a great person and fine writer, but usually when I get this comment from a friend (or a stranger), the person talking can’t remember the name of the book, has no idea whether the author is self-published or traditionally published, and doesn’t know if said author is working on anything new. I appreciate the thought and wish the author all the best, but I don’t think I need to spend time figuring out if the published work is a series of main-stream novels or a church cookbook.

How do you write something that long? I can’t even write a short story. (I get this one a lot because I write epic fantasy. You might get some variation of this comment depending on what your format or genre is). When I bother answering this question, I usually laugh and say that I struggle to write something short (which is true). Then they laugh, and have no idea what to say next. I’m working on some short stories right now, in addition to a novel, but the two are totally different animals. Writing a novel is not just taking a short story and adding 40,000 words to it. I write long stuff because that’s what I like and what I’m good at.

Where do you get your ideas? This one annoys me the most. It’s not the fault of the person asking the question – they’re genuinely impressed by my creativity, and I should be flattered. But when this comes as a question, I truly don’t know how to answer it. I don’t go out searching for ideas – they come to me. Whether I want them to or not. I do understand that some writers need more prompts and inspiration than others, and then of course there’s writer’s block in all its forms. But my ideas usually come unbidden and at random times. Driving at night, I see a lamp post and get an idea for a story. A line of a song leads to an unrelated thought, and then there’s the seed of a story idea. I read a book, and that kicks my creativity into overdrive. If you’re looking for my secret idea formula, I don’t have one.

What other “please don’t ever say that to a writer” questions or comments have you encountered?

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14 thoughts on “What Not to Say to a Writer

  1. Oh wow, you’re speaking my language. I used to be okay with the “when can I read your book?” question until a few people with questionable motives really put me off actually sharing. Now I’m a lot more suspicious and I keep it close my heart – and that’s besides the whole it’ll-be-done-when-it’s-done problem.

    Also, YES SOMEONE ELSE WHO CAN’T WRITE SOMETHING SHORT! I’ve slowly been getting the hang of it the past year and I’m hoping to get better. But seriously. The novel I’m working on right now is 120k words, and while close to the end, is not finished yet. It’s somewhere between too much to say and can’t let go, right?

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  2. “How’s your book coming?” ACK. That’s the one that really gets me. Because, I don’t know. It’s coming, I think? But not as fast as I would like, certainly. And other times I don’t really feel like it’s “coming” at all. Another one that particular annoys me is, “Do you plan to publish?” Um….yeah…. “Oh really, when?” Um. Well…*whisper* do you actually know how much work it takes to publish a novel? I hate to admit this, but it might be awhile.

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  3. You are so not alone in any of these… I had someone ask me “When do you think the book will be ready?” just this morning! I try use the analogy that writing a story, particularly a long one, is like building a house where the blueprints and materials can change overnight…

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  4. Hahaha! 😛 I was uncertain about what you may expose in this post, of “what not to say to a writer”, but now that I already read it, definitely, a writer and I think any intelligent human being could be offended if somebody would do that kind of comments/questions! 😉

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  5. I like the part you crossed out.

    It seems that making a story shorter is easier than making it longer, but of course one has to make it longer first. If only I could skip the first part. And then there are the times when I’m working on making my story shorter and I discover the necessary thing that I left out the first time around… Oh, well. I suspect there’s some advice in there somewhere, but I can’t find it.

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