The Worst Things You Can Say to a Writer (and What to Say Instead)

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?’

aragorn internally screaming

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.)

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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.

damen-rolling-eyes

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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Banned Books Week

I only just found out today that next week is Banned Books Week.

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I don’t want to get too heavy because this is not a political blog.  This is a silly book blog, run by a silly woman who loves books so much she once wept in the back of year nine maths because she just secretly finished reading Noughts and Crosses under the table and fine, confiscate the book Mr Camell, I don’t care, my favourite character is dead and maths doesn’t matter anymore.

But banned books?  They are a bad.  A big bad.

Reading books that challenge you is paramount.  Because otherwise you end up living day-to-day as a certain emporer with a certain set of invisible clothes.  To Kill a Mockingbird has been banned for both “being too racist” (it uses the “N” word, think of the children!) and “not being racist enough” (by people who have to launder a lot of pointy white hats, I presume).  I’m an awful person with an awful sense of humour, so I find this hilarious.  But really, it’s also horrifying.

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Because I only just found out about Banned Books Week, I didn’t have anything planned to read specifically.  However, I did happen to borrow a copy of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson a while ago, and if that’s never been banned anywhere, I’ll be stunned.  So I’ll try to read that.

Is anyone else reading something for Banned Books Week?  Tell me what you’re reading!

Kill Your Darlings (Editing Woes)

I’m doing a sixth rewrite/edit on my manuscript (never let anybody tell you writing comes easy) and so far I’ve cut 5,600 words.  This would seem pretty good, except I’m aiming to cut at least 25,000 words in total.  Meaning, almost halfway through the manuscript, I’ve only cut a fifth of what I need to.  Meaning there is probably (okay, undoubtedly) going to be a seventh draft.

cry-ice-cream

There are two things to learn here.  The first one is, plan your novel better than I did, and then you will not fall into all the terrible and ridiculous pitfalls that I did, especially if you’re able to check your own continuity and make sure a revolver with six shots doesn’t somehow fire endlessly without running out of bullets.

Okay no, wait.  Three things.  There are three things to learn here.

The second thing is that nothing is ever perfect first time.  If you’re writing the first draft of your novel or script or poem or, I don’t know, dumb blog post about how tough editing is (HEY-O!), and you’re worried that it’s kind of rubbish … don’t.  Of course it’s rubbish.  All first drafts of rubbish.  It’s allowed to be; that’s the point.  You are the only person that ever has to read your first draft.  So plan as much and as carefully as you can (or don’t, if you’re one of those crazy pantsing types) and then just enjoy the ride.

The third thing is that editing is pain.

sobbingtulio

Okay, no, I’ll get a hold of myself.

Editing is tough, but you can get through it using this handy mantra.  Kill your darlings.

A wonderful lecturer at Winchester Uni taught me that one (if you’re reading this, hi Ness!), and it’s stuck.  The toughest thing about editing isn’t knowing what to cut.  A writing buddy can help with that, or one of a million online guides to editing, or just plain common sense.  What’s bleeding hard about editing is summoning the willpower to cut the words out.

Those words are your darlings.  You love them.  You worked hard on them.  Every single one of them is a precious, shining diamond and it must be protected.  How dare anyone suggest you throw them away?

(I may be projecting a little here.)

But the thing is, hoarding unecessary words is like hoarding those weird little china animals.  One or two don’t seem so overbearing, but if you keep hoarding eventually your windowsills are cluttered with creepy, dead-eyed kittens, and your writing is cluttered with pointless, annoying words you don’t need.

Also chapters.  Have I mentioned sometimes you have to cut whole chapters, or characters?  When you put your editing hat on, you become an evil dictator, willing to execute anything that stands in the way of your manuscript becoming the best manuscript ever.

Kill your darlings.

Chant it to yourself before you start editing.

Kill your darlings.

And also … pray for me.  I’m about to dive into Chapter 16.

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I Belong to the Earth

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Read if you like: Wuthering Heights, The Living and the Dead, gothic YA

The first book in J.A. Ironside’s Unveiled series is a fantastically spooky take on Emily Brontë’s classic, Wuthering Heights. Emlynn was always able to sense the dead, but after the car crash that killed her mother, her ‘gift’ is stronger–and worse–than ever.  When her family moves to a small vicarage in Yorkshire, they are swept into haunting that’s killed occupents for generations.  Emlynn must find away to stop these ghosts, before she loses the rest of her family.

This book is an absolute must-read if you like Wuthering Heights.  Or just ghost stories in general (when you’ve read it, you’ll know why I shudder every time I think about The Window Scene).  The story of the haunting mirrors a tense family drama, creating a story that had me groaning in frustration after each chapter because damn it, now I have to read the next one.  I’m looking forward to seeing what J.A. Ironside writes in the future!

I Belong the the Earth is being re-released on 20th September, and will be available for pre-order on Kindle this week.

Red flags:
(This book may not be for you if you avoid the following)

  • Never sleep again: I read this book in the mornings.  Never before bed.  Although the majority of it isn’t too spooky, that aforementioned Window Scene is spectacularly scary, and would definitely had stopped me going to sleep if I’d read it at night!
  • It’s Me, It’s Cathy: if you completely loathe Wuthering Heights, this book may be a bit of a struggle.  No worries if you haven’t read it–in face, I’d argue I Belong to the Earth is better if you haven’t, as the story will be more mysterious!

Cheer-Up Tuesday 13/09/2016: Everything is Flawed, and That’s Okay

Happy Tuesday!  This week, I thought I’d do something different: a pep talk.  A weird one, at that, but hopefully one that helps some of my fellow writerly people.

There’s nothing worse than those days when you look at your writing and think, Why did I bother?  This is terrible!  And then you look at talented people like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling.  People who’ve made a living–and more–from their writing.  Or maybe you just read one poem and think, Why can’t I do that?  It’s perfect.

Well, here’s the thing.  It isn’t perfect.  Harry Potter isn’t perfect, and neither is any one of Stephen King’s novels, or whatever beautiful poem you’re thinking of.  It’s not.

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(These are writer owls.  They are shocked and excited by this revelation.)

The truth is, if you look far enough, you’ll find that literally every piece of beloved literature was shredded by someone.  I’ve read articles that ripped Harry Potter to pieces.  Doug Walker, the ‘Nostalgia Critic’, makes fun of Stephen King so much it’s become a running joke in his webseries.  Nothing that anyone has ever written appealed to every person who read it.

So what’s the point?  The point is, everything is flawed.  And that doesn’t matter.

Because, much as every piece of literature has avid haters, it also has adoring fans.  I’ve always found it oddly comforting to know that Harry Potter isn’t perfect, even if I can’t help thinking it is every time I pick up Prisoner of Azkaban.  Because if Harry Potter isn’t perfect, I don’t have to be.  Neither do you.  Neither does anyone.

Be good.  Write the best you possibly can.  But, as Salvadore Dali said, ‘Have no fear of perfection–you’ll never reach it.’

And that’s just fine.

A Court of Thorns and Roses

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Read if you like: dark fairy tales, high fantasy

A Court of Thornes and Roses is the book you’ve heard everyone rave about long before I got to it.  And with good reason.  Sarah J. Maas’s young adult (or new adult, as it’s a little mature even for YA) retelling of Beauty and the Beast and Tamlin is dark, romantic, exciting, and gripped me from beginning to end.

Feyre is out hunting for her poor family when she encounters a massive wolf.  Thinking it might be a faerie from over the border, she shoots it dead and sells its skin.  However, the faerie’s friend comes looking for him, and demands Feyre pay the price for her crime–by living forever as his captive.  In the faerie world over the border, Feyre learns of a terrible blight destroying magic, and a mysterious woman terrorising the people around her.

I highly recommend A Court of Thorns and Roses to anyone looking for an excellent new twist on an old fairy tale.  I really enjoyed it, and hope to write a more detailed review at some point (maybe when my life is a little less manic … ahahaha …)

Red flags:
(This story may not be for you if you avoid the following)

  • Gruesome: when I said this was dark, I mean daaark.  It’s not the most gruesome book I’ve ever read, but it was pretty surprising in a YA fairy tale retelling (which is why I’m tempting to call it NA instead).
  • Sexy times: another reason to call it new adult rather than YA.  Plenty of teen and YA fiction has sex scenes, but the scenes in A Court of Thorns and Roses are fairly graphic.  There are also a few threats of rape.
  • Just tell her, you moron: I got frustrated with the characters from time-to-time because they never told each other anything.  For the most part, the faeries have good reason to keep Feyre in the dark (and it is explained towards the end of the book) but there are occassions where the characters seem to be acting cryptic purely because the plot requires it.

Reflection or Escapism?

It seems to me there are two approaches to storytelling at the moment.  I’ve seen debates raging over Facebook, Reddit and Tumblr (because the people I follow are all book nerds).  They usually go something like this:

FRED: Real life is boring.  Thank god for books.
KITTY: What nonsense!  We can only enjoy fiction because we recognise real issues happening in the fiction!
FRED: Well Game of Thrones is popular for the dragons and ice zombies.  Not many real issues there.
KITTY: No, no!  Game of Thrones is popular because is shows real things like political intrigue and war in a fresh setting.  Without those things it’d be rubbish!
FRED: Who cares about that?  I’d rather have the dragons …

And so on.

(Fred and Kitty are not real friends of mine–they are strawpeople, and any resemblance to people not made of dried grass is kind of intentional, because metaphors and whatnot.)

What it seems to boil down to, to me anyway, is one key question.  Do you read fiction to escape reality, or to see a reflection of it?

The word ‘escapism’ is hardly new, but I’m sensing it’s going out of fashion.  Whenever I see a book (or film, or video game) praised for being great escapism, a horde of fans seem to be waiting in the wings to disagree, as if the word were offensive.  ‘It’s not just escapism!’ they cry.  ‘It also talks about real issues like [racism/sexism/politics/etc]!  This book has merit!’

Is escapism really such a bad thing?  Sometimes real life is dull, or frustrating, or upsetting.  And at those times, is it so bad to want to curl up in a simple world where a hero with a magicsword can fix everything by walloping the nasty wizard hard enough?  If a story makes its reader happy, isn’t that merit enough?

While I understand that all fiction needs a splash of realism to make sense (I’d be pretty peeved and confused if, for instance, Harry Potter said sod Voldemort, and flew off to live on Mars) I don’t think every book has to have a ~great message~ behind it to make it enjoyable.  In fact, having read 1984, I can confidently say I’d rather read a book without a message but a decent story, than the other way around.

On the other hand, I know of people who find stories without these reflections deathly dull.  Who’ll spend hours pouring through their favourite books, pulling up examples of how well they dealt with one -ism or another as if that’s the most important thing about them.  Heck, I’ve been recommended books before on this basis.

So what do you think?  Would you rather read a book with an excellent discussion of real issues, or pure fantasy?  Are you a reflectionist or an escapist?