Oh, The Things People Say

Julia, Lea, Kaitlyn and Kate at the Wells Library

Kate Flora here, beginning a conversation about some of the amazing things that people say to writers, leading off, of course, since many of us served our time in the unpublished writer’s corner, and/or have been banished back there from time to time, with the seemingly innocent question: Are You Published?

I have an exercise that I sometimes use in writing class, designed to tap into strong emotions. It goes like this:

You’re at a party and someone you haven’t met before asks you what you do. Trying it on, you respond that you’re a writer. How interesting, the stranger says, are you published? When you admit that you are not, your new acquaintance’s eyes glaze over and then he gradually drifts away, leaving you standing in the unpublished writer’s corner.

Assignment: write the paragraph of rebuttal, anger, frustration, or self-doubt that you then compose in your head, and bring it to the first class.

Sample first lines: Oh, yeah, big shot, I’d like to see you write a whole novel.

So maybe I’m not published, but when I come into a room, I see a dozen things you’ll never notice.

And then, there’s my all time favorite comment: Oh, I don’t buy books. So, dear fellow MCWriters…what have people said that makes YOUR head spin?

Barb Ross:

“Are you published?”

“Yes. I am, in fact, the best-selling author in the Falkland Islands. My birthday is national holiday. When I have a new book released, they hold a parade for me with floats and marching bands. What would you like to know?”

“Yes. I don’t publish under my own name, because I typically write heavy erotica. What would you like to know? By the way, do you always eat dip like that?”

“Yes. I am the world’s foremost authority on pinworms. I’ve published ten titles on the subject. What would you like to know? By the way, are you going to finish your dessert?”

Kaitlyn Dunnett: Back when I was writing for young readers and doing school programs, I could count

Kate IS meeting Stephen King

on two questions from every class. The first was How much money do you make? and the second was Do you know Stephen King. Sorry, kids. I’ve never met the man. My standard answer to the first question was, of course, “not enough.”

I don’t often get the “are you published” question. I’m more likely to be asked, especially at a book signing, “Is this your first book?” That throws me because if I say more than “no, I’ve written others” and tell them how many, I then get that look that means “if you’ve written that many books, how come I’ve never heard of you?” Fortunately, they rarely put that question into words, because short of offering a seminar in the realities of the publishing business, there is no good answer I can give them. Come to think of it, this may be one reason why I no longer do book signings unless they’re group events with lots of other published writers.

Most annoying question I’ve been asked? Hands down, it was How much did you pay to have your book published?

 Julia Spencer-Fleming: I’ve got a great idea for a book then the person telling you this (it always seems to be at a book signing, with increasingly impatient folks in a line behind Mr. Great Book Idea. Interestingly enough, when he recounts his idea, it’s always straight out of some movie I’ve seen. I swear. I’m not sure if this means non-writers absorb plot lines from what they see and then forget the source, or if they just think that’s how we do it – watch the latest thriller and then copy it down, smudging the details so it looks original.

The companion statement is, of course, I’ve always wanted to write a book I have a certain sympathy with this. When I visit the Portland Flower Show (opening on March 7!) I go deep, deep into a fantasy world where I have a beautifully designed and maintained garden. It seems so do-able, surrounded by all these clever, competent horticulturists and all sorts of tools of the trade, promising to make landscaping quick and easy. Then I leave the building and snap back to reality. One, I can barely keep super-low-maintenance houseplants alive. Two, I will never, ever, be motivated enough to invest the time and energy it takes to create a beautiful garden. How do I know this? Because I’ve lived in the same house with the same acreage for 18 years and I haven’t done a damn thing with it. How do I know you, Ms. Always Wanted to Write, will never be an author? Because you haven’t done it already.

Lea Wait: (And maybe I’ll see you at the Portland Flower Show this year, Julia! I’ll be there March 7, and some of my prints will be there for the whole show!) I’ve been reading everyone’s comments and nodding like crazy. Yup. Heard them all. Plus, there’s always, “Would you read my manuscript?” I tell them I don’t do that, on advice of my lawyer. I’m sure they understand. And then I refer them to one or more appropriate writers’ organizations (Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of American, Society of Childrens’ Writers and Illustrators — whichever I think might be most helpful. Most of them also can help members find critique groups.) But the more persistent “pre-published” writers then continue, usually along one of two tracks. Either 1) they ask for a referral to my agent. Or 2) they tell me why I am wasting my time working with an agent and a traditional publisher when I could be making much more money by self-publishing.  It is at that point that I usually need to find either the ladies’ room, the bar, or the exit, depending on the occasion. And realize that there’s a reason I’ve chosen a career path than keeps me at home most of the time.

Kate Flora: I do read books, or the first fifty pages of books, for my friends. It’s a kind of pay it forward, and I have such respect for the process we all go through. But for others, I just respond that I do read and critique manuscripts, and I’d be glad to do it for them, and my per hour charge is quite reasonable, and when they’re ready, they can contact Grub Street, where I teach, and arrange for me to be their manuscript consultant. That usually settles the questions. And then, sometimes I do have the chance to work with them. And get paid for my time.

Vicki Doudera:    A sign of the changing times — a question I am getting is, “Are you with a traditional publisher?” That’s not one I mind, necessarily, because the answer is “yes” and I’m very grateful.  Lea, I like your answer to the “Will you read my manuscript?” (“No, on the advice of my lawyer.”) That is something I could actually get my lawyer/husband to agree with!

Paul Doiron: I think we’re living through a strange time in which the idea of what it means to be an author has become very slippery. Desktop publishing (and now eBook publishing) has removed all of the old barriers to getting a novel into print (or online). I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing — it’s just a thing.

Lots of the former standards no longer apply. For instance, it’s very common for a small library to invite me to give a reading (for free) and then tell me I should bring my own books to sell. Self-published authors are happy to do these uncompensated events for perfectly justifiable reasons. But for those of us with commercial publishers, it can come off as snooty if we ask to have our mileage reimbursed or we request that a bookseller be present to handle the exchange of money. The assumption is that we don’t want to get our fingers dirty making change. The reality, of course, is that when I signed my contract, I entered into a legal agreement that says my job is to write the books and its Macmillan’s job to sell them.

We live in such a self-promotional time. People assume that publicity (of any sort) equals money. They don’t know how it happens, but they are sure it does. Snooki is famous, therefore she must make millions. Does she really? I don’t know. I do know, however, that many readers would be shocked to learn how little “successful” authors earn from writing and how many of us work second jobs just for the health insurance or the 401k plan. Royalties are a mystery to most readers. I earn a few dollars, at most, on every $24.99 hardcover copy of my book that Barnes & Noble sells. Think how many books I’d need to sell at a reading to justify a roundtrip excursion to Houlton (I live on the midcoast). Now, there are many reasons I might like to give a reading a Houlton, but the prospect that it will earn me money (as opposed to cost me money) is not one of them. But as I said at the outset, you can’t blame casual readers—or even non-readers—for not understanding the changing economics of our already weird business. When the conversation turns to money, I always quote James Michener on this point: “In America a writer can make a fortunate but not a living.”

I guess the most amusing question I get asked isn’t even a question. It’s really a frequent comment I hear from acquaintances. “I read your book. [Long pause.] It was…good!” The expression of surprise always cracks me up. I’m glad that I exceeded their modest expectations, however marginally.

Sarah Graves: I think I’ve already mentioned once the comment that stopped me in my tracks: “I’m going to write a novel, too. But it’s not going to be a mystery. It’s going to be a real novel!” (NB: The real novel did not ever get written, sadly for western literature.)

One other one got me, too, when soon after I came to Eastport a woman stopped me while I was walking my dog. “You’re the writer, aren’t you?” When I admitted it, she looked me up and down, not admiringly. “Hmph. Well, I don’t have time for reading.” Because that frivolous activity is right up there with gluing individual bits of glitter onto your toenails, don’t y’know.

So of course I went right home, glued on some more glitter, lit a cigarette, and drank a bottle of wine for breakfast just to live up to my image.

Kate Flora: Right up there with “Are you published” is “Have I heard of you?” Really, I’m not sure how I would know the answer to that question. I have my psychic moments, but they are pretty rare.

I have learned to relax when the phone rings and someone says, “I HATE you.” Because this usually means I kept them up way past their bedtime.

But as Paul Doiron noted, there is that heartstopping comment: “I’ve read your book.” Why do I always find it amazing, after so many years and a dozen books, that anyone has read me? Yet I do. And why it is always followed by that pause, while we steel ourselves for what comes next. And then the reader says, “It was really good. I loved it. I’ve already ordered the next one.” And we begin to breathe again.


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10 Responses to Oh, The Things People Say

  1. Mare F says:

    You all are wonderful. I’ve been howling in my livingroom, alarmed my cats, spilled my coffee, and I am so grateful that I don’t have to face the people asking these questions because I’m certain I would not be as gracious as you all have been. Please, please, please, keep up the wonderful work that you do because there are an amazing number of people out here who love what you do.

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Oh, Mare…you know you’ve made our day!

    We do get a bit wicked, don’t we, especially that Barb Ross. For years, people would come up to me and say, “How the writing going. Of course, I haven’t read your books…” and I would politely say, “Oh, that’s okay…thanks for asking.” And then one day, I turned the corner…and the next time someone said, “Oh, I haven’t read your books…” I said, “Why not?”

    Also…oh dear, I am so awful…when someone says, “Can I get your books at the library?” I sometimes let the inner imp take charge, and say, “You can get them at the bookstore.”


    • Mare F says:

      Good for you. One can only hope that the brain kicks in later and they realize what they have asked. LOL. I was a bartender for years so I got away with letting my mouth run wild. Now that I’m 53 I fear that it’s ingrained.

  3. Patrick Ohl says:

    A wonderful post! As someone whose attempts at fiction are few, far between, and always disastrous, I’ve more or less given up on that, but I absolutely love reading. Of course, it’s unfortunate, in a way, that the books I’m most interested in always seem to be out of print…

    • MCWriTers says:

      Patrick…one of my favorite out of print mysteries is Edmund Crispin’s The Glimpses of the Moon. One of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Hard to come by, and my copies are always getting borrowed and not returned.


  4. My favorite funny question is, “Have I heard of you?”

    How in the world is an author supposed to answer that one? 😉

    • Sarah Graves says:

      Answer, earnestly and while smiling and pressing the questioner’s hands very kindly between your own: “Why, of course you have, dear. I can tell just by looking at you that you’re completely up to date on all the latest and best!”

    • Mare F says:

      Beth, I would be snotty enough to say, “Only if you’re well read.” And I would say it with a big smile.

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