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Thursday, March 15, 2007


Unanswerable remarks

(Okay, first a public service announcement: I'm having internet difficulties that may keep me off the Net in the next few days. Sorry about that. I'm also, unless the contract exchange falls through at the dire last minute, going to be moving house at the end of the month. Some attendant chaos and internet re-connection issues may interfere with blogging for a bit, but I'll do my best. Now back to our featured attraction...)

Humanity is a vulnerable species, and often, when presented with an unfamiliar experience, makes inappropriate remarks. Writers are included in this, of course - I utter the most goshawful fatuities myself, given the proper stimulus - but there's a situation guaranteed to lead everyone into folly: the case of an affable member of the public meeting a published or aspiring author, never having met one before. I'm exaggerating, of course, as many people can be perfectly sensible; however, there are some remarks which are not only odd in themselves, but lead any stuttering writer into even odder responses.

There are various basic sub-categories of unanswerable remarks. Roughly, you can divide them thus:

- Friendly but inexperienced attempts to sound on-side with this whole writing thing.
- Curiosity about stuff that's hard to explain.
- Veiled prickliness.
- A desire to discuss your book coupled with a lack of grasp that it can be a delicate subject.
- Someone saying the first thing that comes into their head.

Here's a collection of common hard-to-answer remarks. I've added my usual responses, but if anyone can think of better ones, let me know . . .

Remarks to which an honest reply would sound churlish

For instance: 'This should inspire you!' - usually spoken of a scenic view when you're writing a gritty urban thriller or a tragic opera when you're writing a light comedy. This well-meant comment is generally made on the assumption that all art comes from some Romantic trance-like state, which can be invoked by exposure to anything else artistic. But art isn't a generic mood; it's extremely specific, and there's a difference between something that's aesthetically pleasing and something that'll get your mind working in an effective way on the story you're trying to write. You might be inspired by a beautiful mountain - but quite possibly, inspired only to the thought, 'My, what a beautiful mountain', which is hardly the basis of a story. In practice, you're more likely to be inspired by a Saturday morning advertising jingle.

Usual reply: 'Yes, it is lovely, isn't it?'

Remarks to which an honest reply would sound arrogant

For instance: 'I'd love to write if I had the time.' The honest answer is that writing requires ability and hard work, and it's kind of insulting to imply that the only reason why a writer produced a novel, play or poetry collection is because they had time on their hands - but you can't say that, because it sounds incredibly stuck-up.

Usual reply: 'Well, good luck with it if you ever do.'

Remarks to which an honest reply would sound stupid

For instance: 'Where do you get your ideas?' Sometimes there'll be a specific answer for a specific idea - but there's never one answer for every idea. Quite often, you really aren't sure where the idea came from; you just thought it up. To some extent, having ideas and turning them into stories is a knack, and knacks are always difficult to explain - they're more something you do than something you have a system for. This is difficult to explain without garbling.

Usual reply: Find an anecdote that's vaguely amusing / Tell the story of first novel / Say 'All sorts of places, really.'

Remarks to which an honest reply would sound argumentative

For instance, 'It's impossible to get published, isn't it?' If you are published, then it demonstrably isn't - but people can be very attached to their theories, even if they don't have a personal stake in the subject. I remember once when I was a teenager, I ended up chatting to a woman in a market who, on hearing I was going to Cambridge, said, 'Oh yes, they check out your social background to see if you're the right class before they let you in, don't they?' Now this was not true, and I tried to explain it, having just gone through the applications process and noticed no form which demanded to know how many titled relations I had and which clubs my father was a member of - but she wasn't going to be convinced. Her theory made sense to her. People can be like that about publishing: they have their theories, and if your existence contradicts them, they tend to conclude that you don't really exist, not in the fundamental sense. Talking to someone who thinks you don't exist is peculiarly embarrassing; you feel like you're taking up too much space.

Usual reply: 'Well, it's not easy certainly; I had to go through a lot of rejections myself.'

Remarks to which an honest reply would sound critical

For instance: 'Oh yes, a friend of mind tried getting published, but he got rejected so he invested some money and published himself, how enterprising.' The honest reply, at least from my perspective, is 'His book is probably not going to sell many copies', because self-published novels are at a far greater disadvantage than many self-published novelists realise - but you can't say that, can you? This one is particularly awkward because the speaker often expects you to cheer on the view that 'traditional' publishing is closed to ordinary people like you and me, so we have to take matters into our own hands. Of course, you may be published yourself, and still 'ordinary' by your interlocutor's defintion, but people sometimes forget that if they can actually see you sitting there like a real person, and end up making you an honorary unpublished normal person for the purposes of the conversation. Which is quite confusing.

The trouble with both this and the previous remark is that it can contain some veiled antagonism - usually towards the publishing industry rather than you, but that antagonism can quickly turn your way if you don't agree with what they're saying. You have to step very carefully in such conversations if you don't want to end up becoming the temporary personification of an industry somebody's mad at. And believe me, you don't.

Usual reply: 'Well, fingers crossed.'

Remarks to which an honest reply would sound defensive

'I didn't like your book' is a big one; a variation is 'Oh, I never read that kind of thing.' The trouble with these remarks is that they're often spoken very amiably, as if they were a pleasantry. How are you supposed to answer an insult delivered as if it were a compliment? I don't know.

Usual reply: a fixed grin and something garbled. 'Well, not everyone can like every kind of book,' is about the best I've come up with to date, but if anyone has any better ideas, please, help me out here.

An alternative, with someone who has read your book, is 'You know what you did wrong?' Discussion is fine in principle, and can be extremely interesting, but there's a line between discussing it and starting to imply that they've appointed themselves as your editor, here to straighten you out - and self-appointed people are always a bit difficult to get on with. This is a social skills issue; people with good social skills can discuss your book without acting like they're the boss of you, but if they don't have the social skill to do that, they probably won't have the social skill to realise why they're making you uncomfortable. In which case, there's no point explaining why they're getting to you, and the usual method is to let them say their piece and then get away from them as quickly as possible, as no good is likely to come of the conversation. (They may say something insightful about the book, of course, but you can mull it over in privacy later without social awkwardness distracting you.) I hasten to add that not everyone who has an observation about the book falls into this category, just tactless people, of whom there are, well, some.

Usual reply: 'That's interesting, thanks for the feedback. Oh, is that the time?'

Remarks to which an honest reply would sound competitive

For instance: 'You must be just like [insert name of author you hate and your interlocutor clearly loves]'.

Because this person you're being compared to, in the artistic marches of your soul, may actually be your deadly enemy. They may sum up absolutely everything that's wrong with the genre your book is here to save. They may simply, in your view, be a rotten writer, or just a boring writer whose books you can't be bothered to read. But if your new friend likes them, then this friend and you are clearly thinking in different languages, and you won't be able to explain your own artistic aims without insulting their taste. And you don't want to do that.

Usual reply varies depending on whether the speaker would take a dissentient opinion personally or not; if they would, the best tactic is to plead ignorance and change the subject as fast as possible.

Remarks to which no reply is possible

For instance: 'You look more normal than I'd have expected a writer would!' Is this a compliment or an insult? It is, in any case, a personal remark, and few people deal well with strangers making ambiguous comments on their appearance. The honest answer is probably 'What made you assume writers look different from other people?', but manners prevent that; 'thank you', conversely, sounds wrong, because 'normal' isn't particularly flattering (it implies your looks are nothing to write home about, for one thing, which may be true but is seldom welcome news).

Usual reply: 'Well, thanks, I think.'

Of course, all this is hampered by the fact that the only really welcome remark is 'I love your book and I've read it ten times; I think I'm going to buy a hundred copies for all of my rich relations this Easter - they love sponsoring artists, you know!' But that, alas, is spoken less often than it is wished for.

In the interests of parity, I wish to stress again that I am by no means immune to saying silly things when confronted with artists. Let me give you an example; at a party my agency held, I was introduced to the husband of one of their authors, and the conversation went thus:

Kit: Hi, my name's Kit, what's yours?
Dave: Dave, nice to meet you.
Kit: Nice to meet you. So what do you do?
Dave: Well, I'm a musician.
Kit: Fantastic, what do you play?
Dave Gilmour: Well, actually I'm in Pink Floyd.
Kit: Dear God. Um, well, congratulations on your success!
Dave: Thank you. (Raises his glass affably.) Here's to yours.

Now that was graceful behaviour. I think he was sort of amused I didn't know who he was; in any case, it's definitely a lesson in how to behave when someone says something stupid to you.

Anyone else heard/made any remarks that were difficult to answer?

"Where do you get your ideas?"

"Well, see I've got this really creative person chained up in my basement and I flog them daily until they spout out genius ideas, which I then scribble down in a ratty little notebook. Say...you look like a really creative person yourself. Join me for lunch sometime?"
LOL, Josh!

Sometimes I hear that comment about how the publishing process is broken, so people are taking into their own hands to self-publish. Implication is that I should do the same.

My usual response is a polite, "Well, yes, that does work for some people." This is true. The fact that it is extremely, extremely rare for a self-published book to make a profit doesn't really matter to the person I'm having a conversation with. He just wants me to agree with him. So I do.

Then I snicker behind my hand.
'Where do you get your ideas' is one of the ones I mind least, I think; it has the merit of being an honest question. Of course, it's difficult to answer. My other problem is that I, for one, find idea-having by far the hardest part of the process - once I get one I've been known to write as much as 4000 words at a sitting, but I have long dry spells when I can't think of anything - so for me on a blocked day it's a painful question. 'Nowhere, that's where, nowhere! I can't find any ideas at all! And now you've asked the question you're going to find me out! I want to go home.'

However, if I put the question in an equivalent field where I have absolutely no ability, such as composing, I can understand the urge to ask. How do people come up with melodies? It beats me. I try to avoid asking, because I assume that if I had the bone capable of understanding the answer, I wouldn't need to ask the question, but it's still interesting. So I can sympathise with people who ask it; it's not their fault that it puts you on the spot.

My favourite answer to the question comes from Dr Seuss, given in an interview by Glenn Edward Sadler with Maurice Sendak (p 135 of Of Sneetches and Whos and the Good Dr Seuss, Thomas Fensch, pub McFarland:

This is the most asked question of any successful author. Most authors will not disclose their source for fear that other less successful authors will chisel in on their territory. However, I am willing to take a chance. I get all my ideas in Switzerland near the Forka Pass. There is a little town called Gletch, and two thousand feet above Gletch there is a smaller hamlet called Uber Gletch. I go there on the fourth of August every summer to get my cuckoo clock repaired. While the cuckoo is in the hospital, I wander around and talk to the people in the streets. They are very strange people, and I get my ideas from them.

Nice little demonstration in action of how ideas are worked out, in fact, but even on face value, it's about as sensible as most answers you can give to that question...
Given the comment "I'd love to write if I had the time." I'm not so much offended that they don't understand the amount of work involved. Rather, I've learned that if you really need to write, you will find the time.

Scribbling on small pieces of paper from my purse while waiting for the light to change, on paper napkins during lunch, in my children's school notebooks. These are all times when the words just have to come out.

I think that writers really just have to write and so they do. It's an affliction, really. Not a hobby. I don't always enjoy getting out of bed in the night to go and write down a chapter that won't let me sleep. But I do. I have to.

Of course, you can't tell the offensive person that. So, I just nod my head and if I'm feeling generous, I ask what else they like to do with their time and discover that they really love knitting or something.
Here's one for those on my side of the fence.

"So, why aren't you published yet?" or the variation, "Umm..how long did you say you've been working on this?"

It doesn't bother me, personally, but I can still hear the underlying questions. "Why not just admit you aren't good enough to get published? How much longer are you going to waste your time? Isn't it about time you got a new hobby? Why would you put so much effort into something that doesn't provide immediate financial reward?"

I agree, Nan. Writing is a compulsion. It even took my now-fiance a while to realize that it was more than just a time-consuming hobby for me, and I am ever so grateful that she's supportive of it still, even when I do scurry into my hole for a few hours. It's kind of like asking a kleptomaniac why they steal, even if they know they're going to get in trouble eventually. It's that thrill (is it bad I'm comparing writing to a crime?) that fills you during the act when it goes well, even if you have to face consequences afterwards, like...oh, suffering social lives, flimsy hygiene, or a tendency to talk to yourself while walking down the sidewalk, without one of those bluetooth things stuck in your ear.
I really agree with nan's comment, although for me it's the thinking about it as much as the writing. My wife can see that when we're talking about what we'll do in the garden this spring, or this year's vacation, my eyes glaze over and she realizes I'm thinking about a fiendish plot twist or composing a character's death speech... Although I do prefer to wait till the whole family is asleep before writing things up, I also scribble in a little notebook throughout the day.

Regarding the questions, one I've come to dislike (although this may simply be my limitations as a salesman) is: "You've written a book, what's it about?"
I normally respond by looking at my wrist and asking "How long have you got?" - I just cannot summarise a 100,000-word novel in a couple of throwaway sentences.

Oh, and just to let you regular posters know, yesterday I got another publisher rejection. They're starting to get painful now: the publisher was very complimentary about my writing skills, but because she was a woman (sorry if this sounds sexist), her praise came across as quite patronizing. It's doesn't matter in how much candy you dress it up, a "no" is still a "no". Still, there you go. :-(
I know how you feel, Chris. The agent I'm working with has been kind enough to keep me in the loop on responses from editors. Rejections so far obviously, though some very complimentary ones. Sometimes it's just a "I'd love to buy it but my schedule can't take another book." In those instances, I'm thinking I'd go intern for the person if they wanted...unpaid, if it'd help clear off their desk enough to slip the manuscript in.

And hey, Chris, if you're ever wanting critiques/feedback, or just an objective eye, I enjoy doing that too.You work is speculative fiction, or am I remembering wrong?
Thanks Josh, that's very good of you to offer. So it seems we're in about the same boat, yes? You got your agent and now they're trying to get you a deal.

I think I've been extremely lucky with my agent. She's the same as Kit's (I think, certainly the same agency) and spent three months critiquing and helping me develop the story before she offered to represent it, so I think it's in a good enough condition for an editior. To be fair it is early days yet: it's gone out to eight publishers of which three have rejected so far. My problem is that after the struggle to get the agent I just can't relax about getting the publisher. My wife tells me that this is what it feels like to be pregnant, when your emotions are all over the bloody place, and you're really upbeat one minute and in the depths of despair the next.

So how are you coping with the rejections Josh? Steely determination one minute and then ready to jump out of the window the next? Or have you managed to find a way to stay on an even keel? Can you take those compliments at face value or is there a cynic inside you muttering dark and altogehter unstable threats?

By the way, the book is "genre-crossing" (ho, ho, ho), mostly alternative reality, historical mystery, action thriller... bit of everything except fantasy... just can't stand all those bloody elves and goblins and what have you...

How about yours Josh?
Kinda bipolar there. Most of the time I do find with rejections. I even try to see them as encouraging, since it's at least someone validating my existence. Maybe I have a Pollyana complex...that would certainly explain why I've sprouted these three-foot-long blonde braids.

I've got my muttering moments. Who doesn't? Much of the time, I try to ignore the fact that I've got a book out there and am working on my next project.

When I get compliments in a rejection, I do take them as a backhanded compliment and dish out this little mental conversation: "So the work's good? You like it? Awesome. Take it. I won't stop you. Oh...there's that one little niggly thing that's stopping you. Meh. Your loss." And then I make a mental note to send them a free copy when it does get published.

The one my agent is workig with is actually the first novel I wrote, though it has gone under so many revisions, it's almost unrecognizable from its first incarnation. Original fantasy (no elves dwarves, dragons, etc) system of magic based on..well...if you want, I have the first scene up for peeks at my site. Just follow the website link from my profile. My email is there as well, in case you want to communicate outside the comments section so we don't annoy Kit too much with comment notices. Heheh.

The main thing for me with rejections is the waiting period. That does get to me, because I tend to pace myself so steadily and plow through work as soon as I can. Problem is, I tend to expect that same response time from others, even though I know agents and editors are usually swamped and can take weeks or months to get back on a proposal.

Anyhoo...on to revising my latest new manuscript. Yehaw.
Well, with respect Josh, I get my existance validated everytime my wife opens her mouth and complains about something... (which in an average day is roughly equivalent to the page impressions bbc.com gets)

(Only kidding guys!)

Oh, having a look at your website now Josh...
My particular favourite is, "Why don't you write a Mills & Boon?"

Er, because I don't want to? Because I don't read Mills & Boon, so if I tried to write one it would probably be crap? Because if by some miracle I wrote a publishable one, I still wouldn't make much money from it so what exactly would be the point anyway?

OK, I'm ranting now. I'll stop.
I will second whoever said they dislike the question "What kinds of things do you write?" The only answer I,ve managed to come up with that's honest without being wordy or coming off as pretentious - two things I'm unfortunatly prone to - is "well, all kinds of things, I guess" and change the subject.
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