Ten things writers don’t want to hear — and five that we welcome

Merlin dictating his prophecies to his scribe,...
Merlin dictating his prophecies to his scribe, Blaise; French 13th century miniature from Robert de Boron’s Merlin en prose (written ca 1200). (Manuscript illustration, c.1300.) Arthur Cotterell, The Encyclopedia of Mythology, Lorenz Books/Anness Publishing Limited, 1996-1999, p. 114. ISBN 1-85967-164-0. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everyone who earns his/her living as a writer hears some mighty stupid shit along the way. Often.


I’ve always wanted to write a book. I’m going to do that when I retire. Because, you know, it’s dead easy, right? Maybe you haven’t heard that tired old joke about the neurosurgeon who meets a writer at a party and tells the writer, “I plan to take up writing when I retire.” And the writer says…

Who’s your agent? Will you introduce me to them? I know you’ll tell me because you want to share your contacts with me. My work is exactly like yours and every bit as good. I just know it. (While you’re at it, make a pass at my partner or spouse.)

How are sales going? Oh, really? But I plan to be a successful writer.

Have I read anything you’ve written? And I would know everything you read because….?

Who do you write for? Yes, an innocent question. But, all too often, a tedious demand to prove your credentials. Zzzzzzzzzz.

Are your books best-sellers? Of course. Not.

My last three books were best-sellers. I know, already. And you know that I know.

I loved my MacArthur grant/Pulitzer/Neiman. So much fun! Get the hook.

Will you read my proposal/manuscript and tell me what you think? Sure, for a fee.

Oh, you charge for that? Of course not. Money? Every writer gets a lifetime numbered card from the government. We show it every time we rent a home and buy gas and groceries and clothes and medicine. We get a 50% discount for being, you know, creative! Not.

Here are five winners:

I loved your book(s). My favorite part was when…The whole point of writing is being read. Carefully.

Will you come and speak to our book club? Many of us enjoy meeting enthusiastic readers face to face and answering their questions. (Other authors are too shy or busy.)

Will you come and lecture at my school? For a fee that includes travel time, sure. Every unpaid hour for someone self-employed is lost income. You, the teacher/professor are earning a salary, paid sick and vacation days and, if lucky, a pension. Yes, I get that being invited to share my knowledge is an honor. I do. But my bills don’t care.

Will you speak at our annual conference? Of course we’ll pay you a fee and all travel expenses. You got it!

Are you available to offer coaching or editing — what do you charge? $150 to 200 an hour. When do we start?

For those of you who may still want to write/sell a book or two or three — here’s a very cool blog post with advice from Joyce Carol Oates who suggests the best way to develop a strong sure authorial voice (and readers hungry for more of it) — blog!

32 thoughts on “Ten things writers don’t want to hear — and five that we welcome

  1. LOL. I suppose that if I ever reach the point of actually publishing, I would like the questions for maybe one second. I did love your book and if I had any extra money, I would ask for coaching but . . . I promise not to ask any stupid questions.

  2. Oh yeah. I love it when they assume that you LIKE editing a manuscript that they KNOW will be a best seller and ASSUME you will do it for free. Give me a break! Harlan Ellison’s “Pay the Writer” comes to mind.

    1. There is some serious hubris out there that their work will be SOOOOOOOO much better than yours because, hey, if you were really good you would have had a best-seller by now.

      I once whined to a top NYC agent that I wanted my first book to make that list and he reminded me that only the tiniest fraction of books will ever achieve it. I have two dear friends who do the publicity for two major American publishers…and I have learned a lot about how some people game the system to make the list. It is NOT a level playing field.

      Ironically, a Canadian best-seller (much smaller market than the U.S.) is a book that has sold more than 5,000 copies….which “Malled” has. So, north of the border in my own country, I AM a best-selling author. Quick, get the champagne. 🙂

    1. I have a theory that I have put into practice. If you spend it, it will come. (Within limits, of course.) For many many years I refused to carry any debt and it made life very difficult. Now I don’t sweat it (I do pay it off in chunks) and will enjoy luxuries like framing art or buying new shoes for my husband…because the confidence I *will* make some more dough seems to work. If you spend your life paralyzed in fear you’ll be broke funny thing, you are.

  3. Great post!

    We musicians hear these kinds of remarks too. People just have no idea what goes into being a professional in an artistic field.

    Thanks for helping to educate the public in your inimitable style! 😉

    1. I am in AWE of musicians. My ex husband played clarinet in an amateur orchestra and an ex-beau played violin in a quartet. I think it’s an amazing talent and know it takes a HUGE amount of practice and skill. I think people who bang away at a computer keyboard think “I”m writing” while if they sawed away screeching on a cello might immediately see they are NOT a cellist.

  4. Excellent! By no coincidence, every single one of these happens in exactly the same way in New Zealand. (Oh, the way to make a small fortune writing here is to start with a large one…)

    My favourite one is the ‘oh yes, I’m a “wraiter” too’ response followed by an excruciating five minutes in which it is painfully evident that this is aspirational, but because this self-image validates an ego approximately twice the size of Jupiter, no genuine author short of one or two of the right sort of literary superstars is worthy of their interest. (J K Rowling is right out).

    My wife has forbidden me to punk them at publisher parties…unfortunately… 🙂

    1. I hate watching their faces fall when I make clear it has not (yet) earned me millions.

      I did (which was actually deeply gratifying to my parched ego in NYC) chat with a software engineer at a bar on the weekend who’d heard me discussing Malled last April (2011) on WNYC (the public radio station here) and we had a really good conversation. To run into someone who’d actually heard me, and heard of my work. Well! 🙂

  5. thebitchybride

    This made me smile because I’ve had a lot of these questions from my own family. As soon I had a story or two published my dad started telling me about the novel he was sure he could write in the next six weeks and my mum decided she’d like to “have a go” at switching from non-fiction to fiction.

    1. What’s UP with this?! I think it’s a mixture of envy and admiration. I think everyone fancies themselves a writer, but ask someone (do it) to actually grind out book proposal (ugh, I’ve written eight, 2 of which sold)…that might do it.

  6. Love it Caitlin!

    But my personal favourite is still when someone says: “I read your book.” Then nothing. They wait for you to literally beg for feedback. So passive aggressive. Oh wait, forgot the women over the years who have told me, “I could have written your books!” As a newbie author 20 years ago, I would go ballistic. Later, I learned to just smile and say, “Oh, I’m so pleased you see yourself in what I write. It means I’ve really connected with you.” Taking the high road may mean a book sale, right?

  7. Yeah. I’ve gotten that one as well. “I’ve read your book.” You’re supposed to ask, perkily, “So, what do you think?” Hand flap…

    I have also heard from many people in retail that they too planned to write a book about it. But, you know what, you didn’t! So I just tell them that they’ll find plenty that resonates…trying to be diplomatic.

  8. How about, “I have this great idea! You can write it, and we’ll share the profits.” Dude, do you know that I keep a spreadsheet of all my ideas? Ideas aren’t the problem.

    Or, “You wrote a book? Do I know you?” Um, no, we’ve never met.

    Or, the woman who called me on the phone and said (without so much as a hello or how are you?) “Listen to this letter I wrote. I need you to help me rewrite it.” She thought that as a writer, I could spout brilliant prose without effort.

    My favorite moments: first, attending a book club in Ohio to discuss a bereavement book I had written. It was an extraordinary evening, and I was told later that some of the most animated people had never talked in a book club meeting before. Second, getting a great review on my debut novel, which is women’s fiction, from a man — he really understood the book in a way that some women didn’t.

  9. It is somewhat astonishing that we have to pay a plumber, dry cleaner, utility company and grocery store $$$$$$$ to use their products or services…yet writers are somehow all so wealthy and leisured (right?) that we’re dying to give away our skills without compensation. Because writing is FUN!!!!! I know lawyers pulling in $750/hour who enjoy their work — they still docket every second they work, enjoyment or not…

    The moments of connecting with readers are truly amazing. It still (!) stuns me to learn firsthand that a total stranger has found, read and emotionally connected with the product of my brain and fingers. It seems like some odd sort of magic, doesn’t it?

    I once told a conference audience that I can open my fridge and see the literal proof of my work. My ideas and sweat equity bought that stuff.

  10. This was my favorite: “Have I read anything you’ve written? And I would know everything you read because….?”

    I am also self-employed (musician), so I hear many of the same things but with a slightly different spin. I’m often asked to recount each and every possibly famous artist I may/may not have performed with. When people find out what instrument I play, they expect that I will know everyone on the planet who plays said instrument and I am frequently offered advice on music by non-musicians.

    There is a somewhat popular Craig’s list ad going around. It was posted by a restaurant seeking musicians to perform without pay. The ad stated that they would get good exposure for doing the performances. A musician responded to the ad saying he was hosting a dinner party at his house and was looking for a restaurant to cater the party for free because it was good exposure. It’s amazing how often we are asked to do things for free.

  11. Thanks for sharing this…I see another blog post in the making, about how and why (why????) artists are so undervalued and their/our skills and hard work overlooked or dismissed. Because (as one told me) you PLAY an instrument…instead of, say, operating a forklift?!

    I had a Canadian friend ask me for an introduction to one of NY’s most famously snotty and elusive editors; he assumed (perhaps charmingly) the guy would take my call because I’m a writer in NY who has had some success. As if.

    I have a standard riposte now to the “exposure” offer, a la Eskimos and life at -40 degrees: “No, thanks! People die from exposure.”

    Alternate, less subtle: “Funny thing, when I write “exposure” on my rent/mortgage/utiities/car payment check, it bounces.”

  12. Pingback: Why every writer should have a blog? | Writer Writing.

  13. I’m retired now, so I’m going to become a best-selling author with all this extra time I don’t have. By the way, did you mention how this writing talent will magically appear when it wasn’t there before? I think I missed that. Great post and thanks for the JCO link.

  14. Pingback: If you are good at something… – Lead.Learn.Live.

  15. I get: ‘I’ve bought your book.’ And then the silence. What are you supposed to say or do? Fall on your knees in gratitude. Or say: ‘Are you planning to read it? Or have you just done it out of friendship and now feel you’ve done your bit.’

    1. “Cool! I look forward to your review on amazon.com”?

      My standard answer is, “I hope you enjoy it. Shoot me an email and let me know.” I don’t attach a lot of emotion to the book sales after the initial numbers come in. I do my best to keep the book moving, but life goes on.

  16. Randi Kreger

    The most common questions I get when I tell people I write books are 1) Where do people buy your books? (in other words, are you really published or is the MS in your closet) 2) What are your books about? (a question I hate because the borderline disorder is a long explanation and it’s too much like work) and 3) Do you do this full-time?

    If I do explain what BPD is I ALWAYS get “I know someone like that” and then they want free advice. Sometimes I actually sell a book. The part I don’t like is that from then on they expect me to be a different kind of person–someone who has no problems because you MUST have no problems if you write self-help books, right? If they only knew…

  17. Very interesting post and comment string. Yes, I too have had those statements/questions – the annoying ones and the positive ones. What always amazes me when I say that I write is more often than not people look at me as if I’m an alien: ‘You do WHAT?’ What amazes me even more is that I get that response from other artists or people who are involved in creative practice, or who are readers and/or ‘purchasers’ of art – even they seem to think that what I do is strange! Especially when months might go when I haven’t actually produced anything i.e. something that might be found in a bookshop. In my wise old (!) age, I’ve decided not to worry. Which is easier said than done.

  18. David

    One that might make you laugh: I was lucky enough to meet Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding, at a literary festival in the UK recently. I told him (hopefully not too sycophantically) that I thought the ending of the book was hugely satisfying, and he told me that several people had actually written to him say that they hadn’t like the ending of the book and could he change it. Duh!

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