Just imagine this: you’re at a swish cocktail party, nibbling olives and little squares of cheese on sticks and sipping delicious champagne, all the more delicious because you didn’t have to pay for it. Everybody looks sparkly and glamorous, and one way or another you’ve wound up in conversation with a total stranger.
Once you’ve exhausted all other safe avenues of conversation (‘Isn’t the shampers lovely?’ ‘Funny weather we’ve had!’) you’re steered, willing or not, to the dreaded conversation.
‘So what is it you do?’
One of two things will happen now, depending on the kind of person you are. Well, technically, one of many things could happen. The tasteful ice-sculpture swan could turn out not to be an ice sculpture after all, and bite you on the nose. But because this is my hypothetical swish cocktail party, that’s not going to happen. Here’s what will happen.
If you are a writer: you must now tell this stranger that you somehow, magically, manage to earn money from stringing words together, like some bizarre alchemist of the English language. As you do, you dread what they’ll say in response. It’ll probably be awful. It’s usually awful.
If you are not a writer: turns out the stranger, instead, is a writer. When they tell you this, you will be forced to say something in response. This is like a choose-your-own adventure book, where you have to turn to page four to impress the writer immensely, or turn to page 137 to fail miserably.
So, here’s a guide to the things you absolutely should not say when someone tells you they’re a writer. (Or, if you are a writer, here’s a humorously relatable list of things people say when you tell them you’re a writer.)
1) So you’re going to be the next millionaire, like J.K. Rowling?
Or E.L. James, or Dan Brown, or whoever’s flavour of the month.
Honestly, this one doesn’t bother me too much personally. It’s usually a joke, and it’s pretty flattering. But remember when you were learning to drive, and everyone said, ‘Heeey, I’ll stay off the roads then, hahahaha!’ and it stopped being funny after about ten minutes? This is a bit like that.
Since the majority of writers make very little money, this also feels a touch like rubbing salt in the wound.
2) I want to write a book someday, when I have time.
This one’s annoying because it implies that all writers are people of leisure, with all the time in the world to sit back and sip coffee while they type. Actually, most writers have another ‘real’ job, too. So how do writers find the time to write? They make time.
I write every day. Every. Day. I have to work 9:00AM-7:00PM at the library? When I get home, head fuzzy, legs wobbly, wanting nothing more than hot chocolate and nap … I still grab my laptop and write.
Not every writer is as crazy as me, but it’s possible for virtually anyone to make time to write. If you want to write a book, write it! Take an hour out of every Sunday if that’s all the time you’ve got. You already have time, so do it!
3) That must be nice, to have a little hobby and call it work!
That one is word-for-word. I’m usually a pretty chill person, but let me tell you, my blood boiled.
As I mentioned in the last point, writers spend a lot of time on their work, and they work hard. Reading a book is a hobby. But think of the last book you read. How would you like to start it again, right now? Maybe you liked it, and you really would read it twice in a row! How about three times? How about six? And each time, you have to underline something new in the text: search with twitching, aching eyes for the tiniest little typos, for any sentences that flow poorly, for each plot hole. And you have to fix them before you can read it again.
Sound boring? That’s what editing is. And editing is just one part of writing.
Please, for heaven’s sake, don’t belittle the hard work of writers. Writing can be a fun hobby, and no writer would ever put in all that effort if they hated writing. But it’s still work, and it’s tough.
4) Why don’t you just self publish? It’s easier, and people make a fortune doing that!
Delivered in the snootiest, most all-knowing tone you can possibly muster.
First of all, self-publishing is not easier. Not if you want to actually make a profit. Physically getting your words on the Internet with a price tag on them is relatively easy, sure. But there are billions of books out there, and you now have to compete with Penguin, Harper Collins, Bloomsbury, and a hundred other massive publishing houses. They have buckets of money (at least compared to you). They have marketing experts, professional cover artists, editors, legal experts, and so many others, all ready to back up their writers.
And you? You have you. I hope you’re ready for a lot of work, because you have to single-handedly make up for the loss of a lot of people.
Getting traditionally published is tough, but for some people, it’s the best way. Alternately …
5) Oh, you’re self published? So you’re not really published then?
The choice to self or traditionally publish is entirely down to the writer. Self publishing is real publishing. It’s just different.
Some people (mystical unicorn people!) actually can handle doing all their own editing, cover art, and marketing–or they can afford to pay people to do it for them without joining an editing house. And I tip my hat to those people.
Don’t be a publishing snob!
So, now you’re standing in front of that stranger at a cocktail party, eyes wide with panic, heart trying to claw its way up your throat, hoping to leap out your mouth and dive out the window to escape the awkwardness of this conversation.
There are so many things not to say. What CAN you say to this person?
Well, I mean, you can say anything you want. I’m not the conversation police. I can’t leap in, sirens screaming, and arrest you with my finger guns. But I can give you some friendly advice, about the absolute best thing to say when someone says they’re a writer.
It’s very simple.
What do you write?
Showing some simple interest in their writing is the kindest thing you can do for a person. You’ll give us a chance to practise our wobbly elevator pitches, and opportunity to revitalise our own interest in our writing (because seriously, six drafts in, motivation is hard to come by).
Some of the best conversations I’ve had were with strangers–not when I told them about my writing, but when I let them tell me about theirs. Their eyes light up. They smile. They remember why they wanted to tell this story, write that poem, create that video game.
And if the writer in question turns out to be a total, unapologetic arse, and you end up wishing you’d never asked? Well, at least now you also know a few things that’ll really, seriously piss ’em off.