As writers, we all know this scenario. A well-meaning non-arts friend or acquaintance approaches and wants to know how the writing life is going. While on some level you know that deep down you should be pleased this person asked, that they are interested in what you do because a) they care and b) they might invest real dollars in your work, there are times when the most innocuous of queries can feel ... wrong.
Friends, just know that if you ask a writer questions about how it is going, you might get long convoluted answers that make you worry for the writer's sanity, or the opposite, a brief and unsatisfying, "Fine." Although I will also mention here that sometimes the answer is, "Fine," because we have seen your eyes glaze over with boredom in the past. We're writers. We notice these things. Consider the brief answer a conversational mercy to all parties. Also know that while we love to complain about things like this, we really do want you to ask.
I was thinking about common questions that writers get and why they might be irritating. Me, I'm self-published which means that sometimes I have actual solid answers to things like the dreaded, "When will your book be out?" so that one doesn't bother me, now. It stressed me out a little before I knew I was going to self-publish, or if that question was asked about an unfinished project. Then the answer might be, "Well, I really don't have a firm date set and hey did you see that crazy news story about the guy carrying a crossbow around downtown Wilkes-Barre?"
I'm gonna unpack why that question might be a bit of a stress bomb. For traditionally published authors, there is no control over the publication date of a particular work, or the terms have not been set yet, which makes it sort of a thorny thing to talk about. For agented writers without a publishing contract it's a painful reminder that the work has not been picked up yet and it adds a layer of pressure to the waiting game, which is already stressful enough. For writers who are just starting out, who maybe haven't finished a first draft of a novel yet, it's a bit like asking the person in the bottom of a ravine what the view is like from the summit of a mountain. Everything is unknown.
The dilemma here for the asker of the question is that you have no way of knowing where in the spectrum the writer actually is in any of this. Unless you ask.
It seems to me that this is a communications situation wherein nobody wins.
Maybe it's better if you loudly shout, "Writing!" at the writer accompanied by a thumbs-up gesture and a maniacal grin. Yes, we'll think you're weird, but we'll love you for it.
One thing that writers talk about a lot is numbers. Sales. Royalties. Marketing Analytics. You know, the boring business stuff. We talk with each other about these things, sometimes we'll offer up info in blogs or articles to help inform other writers, just to share what we have learned. But here's the thing... unless we are offering up our numbers for public view, DO NOT ASK A WRITER ABOUT THE NUMBERS.
It gives us hives. And anxiety. Hivexiety, if you will.
Questions about numbers come in these forms, "How many books did you sell?" or "How are sales? When are you going to see some money from this?"
I already feel my throat swelling shut.
The problem with numbers is that numbers determine everything, but of course those numbers are constantly moving. And there are a lot of folks holding up the machinery of publishing who get a cut when it comes to money. While it is no secret that not a lot of us make big money, asking us to show you how much feels a bit like getting pantsed. We stand there with our numbers exposed, waiting for everyone to laugh. In the opposite direction, we worry if we tell you that we sound like we're bragging, or that next you'll ask to borrow money. For traditionally published authors, there is an advance and then after the advance has earned out, there are royalty checks, so depending on when this question is asked, we can't give you an accurate answer, because we don't know.
"How many books did you sell?" is just as fraught as the money question. If someone else published the work, the author does not have access to those numbers, or at least not all of those numbers. If you ask a self-published author, it is an accomplishment to crack the 150 copy mark, but next to traditional publishing's best seller numbers 151 copies sounds a bit... anemic. In either case this brings the writer back to anxiety about the health of their career. Unless they are on a best-seller list. In which case, the question is probably welcome because that person then has an excuse to share their hard-earned excitement.
Money and writers are like a partially seen binary star system ejecting strange materials into the night sky. Sometimes, this relationship is a mystery unto us. So when you ask a writer, "So, how do you pay the bills?" we might be tempted to answer with a shrug and a nonchalant "No idea."
We pay the bills just like everyone else. It's just that a lot of us are juggling multiple jobs. Most writers have day jobs. We say that writers who do not have to have day jobs are lucky, but my bet is those writers have worked really hard to get to that point. So how do I pay the bills? I work all the time. I suspect that's how most of us do it.
(Speaking of work, you can find out more about mine at reggielutz.com )