That’s right, campers: Thanksgiving is upon us once again, and that means it’s time for my annual pep talk to all of you writers who will be reveling in the warm embrace of your nearest and dearest. As always, I am posting this as early as possible on the holiday, on the theory that any US-based writer tuned into Author! Author! anytime today is quite likely to be either on the way to meet relatives, friends, or total strangers likely to ask about your writing, have just returned from interacting with relatives, friends, or total strangers who asked about your writing, or are actively avoiding relatives, friends, or total strangers who might ask about your writing.
Why, those of you new to proclaiming your writing habit to the world may be wondering, would any of those states of being call for a pep talk? Simple: it’s not always so easy to act, much less feel, merry and bright while kith and kin inquire, not always politely, how that whole writing thing is working out for you.
That knowing chuckle you just heard, newbies, came from the many, many members of the Author! Author! community who, bless their creative minds, have spent holidays past fending off well-intentioned but God-awfully insensitive questions like, “Oh, you’ve written a book? When will it be coming out?”
To be fair to your sainted Aunt Grace, she almost certainly won’t mean this kind of question the way you will hear it. What makes me so sure of that? Well, I talk to a lot of writers, aspiring and established. If I have ever met even one who did not hear Auntie’s question as “Why is it taking so long for your book to get published?” that sterling soul has kept quiet about it.
Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Some hear it as “Aren’t you, you know, working hard enough?”
Or, “Isn’t the book any good?”
Or the ever-popular, “Don’t you have enough talent to make it as a writer?”
Because, after all, Aunt Grace loves you too much to say point-blank, “Shouldn’t you have given up this ridiculous quest to see your work in print long ago?” Although your terminally blunt cousin Ambrose may well manage it.
The Ambroses of the world aside, it’s rare that a relative will come out with any of these statements verbatim — but it’s often what we writers hear, isn’t it, when we’re asked about an as-yet-unpublished book’s progress? Even the most innocuous inquiry, if it comes at the wrong time, can sound like a challenge for us to produce instantly a full and complete explanation of exactly why this book does deserve to be picked up, and pronto.
And then, before we realize what has happened, we’ve been talking for twenty minutes straight about the horrors of searching for an agent in the current tight literary market, or revising a manuscript with an eye to pleasing readers who just are not buying books in the droves they used to (so you can stop regaling me with theoretically helpful but practically useless tales of how Stephen King got CARRIE published in the early 1970s, Uncle Oswald), or the three possible trajectories for the last third of the novel as our original questioner looks at us with deer-the-headlights eyes and the gravy gets cold.
Such inquirers know not what they’re getting into, obviously. Be gentle with them. Amazingly — from our perspective, at least — non-writers often do not have the vaguest conception that implications that the process is taking too long can be to writers fighting words, akin to calling someone’s mother…
Well, I wasn’t brought up to call people’s mothers that sort of thing. It’s not nice. Even if it were, it’s not good dinnertime strategy to offend the person who will be deciding how much vanilla (or arsenic) to add to the whipped cream destined for your slice of pie.
I tremble to be the one to tell you this, but better that I inoculate you before your Great-Aunt Rhoda’s new husband mentions it while passing you a third helping of turkey: one’s kith and kin frequently seem to be laboring under the to-writers-bizarre delusion that any aspiring writer will be hurt if they do not ask how the book is going, whether you’ve managed to land an agent yet, aren’t you just being lazy if you’ve been working on the same project for two years and haven’t yet completed it, and so forth.
They don’t want to be remiss or insensitive about your little hobby, after all. In their minds, such questions constitute support.
Yes, really. Positively aglow with sweet intentions, they will fling their arms around you practically the instant you cross the threshold into their homes, bearing platters of cookies that you took hours out of your already-scent writing schedule to bake, bellowing at the top of their lungs, “Darling? Haven’t you finished that novel yet?”
Or, “Sweetheart, what a lovely color on you. When will I be able to order your book on Amazon?”
Or, “I won’t even ask if you’ve managed to sell that book of yours, so spare me the speech about how hard it is to catch an agent’s eye. And is it safe to assume that you burned the pies again this year?” (Some relatives are more supportive than others.)
It’s enough to make many a writer regret ever having mentioned that work-in-progress. Or at least having finished it. To the uninitiated, publication and subsequent sales are the only measures of success for a writer, so it’s only reasonable to expect one’s non-writer kith and kin to focus their inquires in those directions.
This kind of pressure dogs the published as well as the unpublished, by the way: no matter how well your last book did, your snarky brother is going to feel justified in grilling you about the next. Don’t kid yourself about that, or about how many of your friends and family may feel the best way to show support after you land an agent is to demand each time they see you why that agent hasn’t yet sold your manuscript of book proposal.
Oh, you think I’m kidding about that last one? I can’t even count the complaints I’ve heard over post-holiday coffee about how Cousin Blaine just can’t seem to grasp the difference between an agent and a publisher.
“I was so thrilled to hear from Mom that you’d finally found an agent for your book,” Blaine burbles while handing the yams. “When is it coming out?”
And don’t even get me started at the ’round-the-table tension endemic to Thanksgiving gatherings after blabbermouth sibling Bertrand has decided to let slip that somebody is writing a memoir. Or when the writer’s significant other, in a misguided attempt to toss some leavening into the conversation, blurts out, “Oh, don’t worry, Edith — Georgette’s not writing about you.”
I can tell you now that Edith is not going to react well to that. As much as the average memoirist may fear — and with good reason — how those about whom he has chosen to write might respond to his take on communal experience, in my experience, most people become far more offended if someone does not write about them than if he does.
“How boring do you think I am?” Edith will mutter under her breath and over the mashed potatoes. And no matter what you say or how many times you kick your SO’s shins under the table, you’re not going to make her feel any better unless you announce, against your better judgment as a writer, that you just haven’t yet gotten to the part of the story that will be almost entirely about Edith.
Under no circumstances must you say anything that remotely resembles this — and believe me, you will be tempted. Bertrand may even egg you on. But think about it: if Edith already felt that nagging you about landing an agent was appropriate, what makes you think that she won’t redouble her, um, supportive commentary if she believes your book will transform her into a public figure? Or that she won’t expect to have veto rights over what you say about her in print?
No offense to the lovely Edith, but do you really want to give her that much control over your creative process? Or — sacre bleu! — set the precedent for future holiday meals that anyone in attendance can tell you what to write?
A seat at a table does not a literary critic make. But if you let it be known that you are open to this kind of input, what’s going to stop your sociopathic fourth cousin twice removed from saying something like, “You’re still writing that book about that family of coal miners? No one is going to be interested in that. Why don’t you write a vampire romance? I hear those are selling well.”
In North America, at least, it is not considered permissible, or even legal, for a writer to respond to such ripostes by taking a swing at the speaker, or declining to pass the carrots until he’s taken it back, or even making fun of that completely unattractive pumpkin-orange sweater with the dancing turkey on it that he’s wearing. No, we’re expected to smile, hug back, and say, “Oh, it’s coming along.”
Rather than, say, telling them anything that remotely resembles the truth, especially if the truth entails something along the lines of three or four years of extremely stressful querying book #1 while trying to write book #2, or a year and a half of revising a manuscript seven times before one’s agent is willing to send it out to editors, or eight months of nail-biting anxiety while s/he does send it out to editors.
It’s considered a bit over-the-top to burst into tears over the stuffing, after all. So if the sterling souls who gather around your Thanksgiving table are not prone to coughing up such gems of literary advice, feel free to breathe a great big sigh of relief. You might want to consider sacrificing, if not a goat, at least a nice, big glass of eggnog to the Muses in gratitude.
If you’re not lucky enough to be surrounded by the advice-reticent, here’s a tip that might make such inquires a bit easier to handle: 99% of the time, questions from non-writers about your work are not intended as invitations to expound at length on the trials and tribulations of the life literary. You are perfectly within your rights, therefore, to brush them off with a casual response.
I heard that indignant gasp, but honestly, isn’t “Oh, the book’s coming along fine, Uncle Keith. How’s the sciatica?” much more conducive to happy holiday memories than either “Criminy — must you ask me the same darned question every single time you see me?” or “Well, Uncle Keith, since you are interested, I have sent out queries to thirty-seven agents. I shall now list them in alphabetical order, along with their responses. You might want to sit down; we’re going to be here for hours.”
I realize that you might well feel the urge to justify yourself, but I appeal to your fine ethical sense: which is the best response to the man who taught you how to hit a curve ball?
I vote for cutting Uncle Keith a little slack. Let’s face it, unless he happens to be a writer himself, he’s probably not going to understand that clapping you on the back and telling you that the only obstacle to publishing success is that you haven’t been visualizing your book’s selling magnificently hard enough is going to make you want to scream, if not throw cranberries at somebody.
Take a nice, deep breath if this impulse begins to overwhelm you: most non-writers have absolutely no idea of the difficulties that writers face getting into print. Heck, even for writers, discovering just how challenging it is to land an agent and/or sell a book often comes as a gigantic, ugly surprise.
Be honest now: you probably remember precisely where you were and what you were wearing when you first realized that there was more to winning this game than mere talent, don’t you? Or that not every great manuscript gets picked up by an agent, especially those that don’t happen to be in book categories popular in recent years. Or that even the most brilliant authors don’t produce Pulitzer-worthy material in first drafts, but routinely revise until their fingers are sore.
Catching your mother playing Tooth Fairy probably didn’t even come close in the disillusionment department. Fortunately for me (I guess), I do come from a family of writers, so I already knew what agents and publishing houses long before my older brother broke the news about the Fairy with the Funny Fetish.
Hey, a person can only take so much bubble-bursting at one time. So if you have anything negative to say about Santa Claus, kindly keep it to yourself.
Fortunately for human happiness as a whole, most members of the general public are spared more or less permanently the disorienting shock of learning that not all good books necessarily get published, that agents don’t just pick up every piece of good writing that they read, or that speed of composition usually isn’t a particularly good indicator of writing quality, or that even in the heyday of Oprah’s Book Club, only a teeny, tiny proportion of authors have even a prayer of a spot on the show.
So when Duncan, your next-door neighbor, waltzes into your kitchen and booms, “When are you going to be finished with that damned book of yours, Harriet?” he almost certainly doesn’t mean to be nasty. Or even passive-aggressive.
No, Duncan just isn’t that kind of guy. He almost certainly believes, bless his heart, that by remembering to tease you light-heartedly about the book you have been slaving over for the past decade, he is offering non-judgmental good fellowship. Because in his world, if you had finished the book in question, you would already be burbling with excitement about its imminent release — if not planning what to wear on Oprah.
Try not to judge him too harshly; you believed in the Easter Bunny once, too.
Thinking up light-hearted ripostes to dazzle the Duncans of this world may be a trying endeavor, especially if Duncan is one of those benighted souls who believes, contrary to all empirical evidence, that if a teasing inquiry was funny once, it will be hilarious at the forty-seventh iteration, but frankly, it’s good practice for being a professional writer. As I mentioned above, getting published usually does not forestall this sort of teasing: there’s always your next book. And the next. And, if you’re lucky, the next.
Remember, these unintentionally pointed questions from well-meaning non-writers most emphatically do not cease after one lands an agent. Quite the contrary: they increase, often exponentially. The average citizen of this fine republic has only a vague sense of what a literary agent actually does with a book — so much so, in fact, that it is not all that uncommon for one’s kith and kin to conflate an agent with an editor.
Or even landing an agent with landing a book contract. Yes, really: although most people may not say it outright, they will just assume that because a writer is so excited to have landed an agent, the agent must therefore have BOUGHT the book.
“So,” these kind-hearted souls chortle at holiday time, sidling up to a writer who has been sitting on the proverbial pins and needles for seven interminable months, waiting to hear back on a round of submissions to editors, “when will you be giving me a copy of your book?”
They mean to be supportive, honest. Which is why they will not understand at all when you begin babbling incoherently and empty your hot toddy all over their sparkly holiday sweaters. They will think, believe it or not, that you are the one who is overreacting.
And in the non-artistic universe, they’ll sort of be right.
Because they genuinely mean so well, you must not, under any circumstances, kill such well-meaning souls for asking what are, from a writer’s perspective, phenomenally stupid questions. No, even if the implication of such questions is that these would-be supporters apparently haven’t listened to anything you have ever told them on the trials of writing a book, finding an agent, working with an agent after one has found one, meeting editorial deadlines, or any of the other myriad trying phenomena associated with aspiring authorship. Nor is it considered polite to scream at them, or even glare in a manner that might frighten any small children who might happen to be yanking on a wishbone nearby.
Nice person that you are, you are going to honor these restrictions. Even if you’re not all that nice a human being, you will want to retain Aunt Grace, Uncle Keith, and neighbor Duncan on your mailing list for the happy day when you do have a book out for them to purchase.
So what’s a writer to do, especially when these questions come during unusually stressful times, such as when that agent you met at a conference has had your first fifty pages for five months and counting, or when you’ve just received three requests for material and have spent the last week frantically trying to get those packets out the door before driving 214 miles over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house?
(My, that was a long sentence, wasn’t it? You might want to avoid paragraph-long questions in those submissions. Yes, I know that Henry James was a great advocate of page-long sentences. I’m fond of his work, but I suspect that he would have rather a hard time getting a manuscript past Millicent today.)
Well, you could regard the question as a serious inquiry, and talk for the next fifteen minutes about characterization, the desirability of semicolon usage vis-à-vis Millicent’s literary tastes, and just how much you hate form rejection letters. That would, of course, require extensive discussion of who Millicent is and how the submission process works. You could also launch into a spirited compare-and-contrast exercise, illustrating vividly how the publishing industry has changed from, say, fifty years ago — probably the period your questioner has in mind but isn’t aware of it. You might even pull helpful charts out of your back pocket, the better to demonstrate how precipitously book sales dropped when the economy went into decline.
If you are gifted at disregarding your interlocutor’s eyes glazing over for minutes at a time, this actually isn’t a bad strategy: once you have established a firm reputation for waxing long, humorless, and/or angry on the subject, the non-writers in your social circle may well learn not to inquire how your book is going. Uncle Keith’s no fool. Depending upon how sensitive one happens to be to such questions, that might be a reasonable goal.
If, however, your kith and kin’s avoiding the topic of your writing like the proverbial plague is not your idea of a comfortable holiday gathering, I would reserve major explanatory speeches for conversations with other writers. Like any shop talk, it’s far more interesting to those who deal with it regularly than to anyone else.
So what’s the alternative? You could, most politely, take your favorite cousin by the arm and say confidentially, “You know, Serena, I spend so much time obsessing over my book that I’m likely to bore you to extinction if I even begin to talk about it. Do you mind if we give my brain a rest and talk about something completely different?”
I hate to break it to you, but Serena may actually be relieved to hear this.
Why? Because poor Serena may well have been traumatized by how testy you got the last time she asked about it, that’s why. Do you honestly think she isn’t still telling her friends the horror story about the time you began weeping copiously into the cranberry sauce when your half-brother Morton told you that if you’d only generated 37 rejection letters, you just hadn’t been trying hard enough to sell your book? Or when you threatened Cousin Aida with the electric carving knife when all she did was suggest that if the agent you spent half a decade trying to land hadn’t sold your book to a publisher within six weeks of your signing the agency contract?
Strange to say, in the non-writerly world, “Honey, find yourself a new agent!” are not fighting words.
There’s a good reason for that: the publishing world really, really likes to maintain the illusion that talented writers just appear out of the ether to become overnight successes. It makes for great interview copy, as long as you’re willing to downplay the decade these authors often spend slogging at their craft before becoming overnight successes.
It’s not really fair to blame non-writers for buying this line; we’ve all heard it often enough. It has real-world consequences, though. Due to the naïve-but-pervasive belief in the inevitability of publication for talented writers — what, do they think that our fairy godmothers go around whacking editors at publishing houses over the head with their wands on our books’ behalf? Don’t be silly; that’s the agent’s job — non-writers (and writers who have not yet worked up the nerve to submit) are often puzzled by the intensity of writerly reactions to casual inquiries about their work.
Especially if they only asked in the first place to be polite, just as they would have asked you about fly-fishing had that been your passion. Again, the people who are going to be the most fascinated in your book’s ups and downs at every stage are going to be other writers.
Actually, after you’re agented, other writers may be your most persistent questioners, especially writers who have not yet had a book subjected to the microscopic analysis that is editorial scrutiny. Placing a book can be a very lengthy process, the timing of which is utterly outside the author’s control, but even most writers don’t know that until they have been through the submission wringer themselves.
But if they haven’t, they think they’re just supporting a fellow writer when they ask, “So has your agent managed to sell that book of yours yet? What’s the hold-up?”
As if you would have sold — or finished, or released — your book but neglected to shout the news from the rooftops. Or at least to your Christmas card list.
I like to think that they ask out of love, as in they would LOVE to be able to celebrate the triumphs of a writer that they know. Admittedly, it sometimes takes some determination on my part to cling to this inspiring little belief — when one’s memoir has been on hold at a publishing house for years do to lawsuit threats, people do tend to express sympathy by venting frustration about the delay at one, after all — but ultimately, I’m quite sure I’m happier than I would be if I took every iteration of the question as a demand that I instantly drop everything I’m doing and rush off to rectify the situation.
Because that’s not really what they mean, is it? No matter how much such well-meant indignation might sound like criticism to the writer at whom it is aimed, badgering was probably the last thing on the commenter’s mind.
I know, I know; it doesn’t feel that way, and it may be kind of hard to believe that your Grandpa Gregor, the guy who has relentlessly picked to pieces everyone you have ever even considered dating, is trying to be non-judgmental about your publishing success. Hear me out on this one.
This is a translation problem. Most of the time, neither writers nor non-writers mean their enthusiastic cries of, “Is it done/sold/out yet?” as criticism about not being the latest bestseller-to-be. Not even if they walk right up to you and say, as if it had never occurred to you or as if every writer in the world didn’t aspire to it back in the days when Oprah had a book club, “You know, your book would be a natural for Oprah.”
What they mean is, “I like you. I want you to succeed. And even though I don’t really understand what you’re going through, I want to acknowledge that you’re trying.”
A little Pollyannaish of me to translate it that way? Perhaps. But permit me to suggest a little stocking-stuffer that writers can give their kith and kin this holiday season: just for this one dinner party or get-together, assume that that IS what they do mean, even if they express it poorly. And respond to the underlying sentiment, not the words.
Just my little suggestion for keeping the peace on that typically not-the-most-silent of nights.
That doesn’t mean that it’s healthy for you to keep biting your tongue indefinitely, of course. So here is a constructive use for any underlying hostility fending off these questions may raise in you: this is the perfect opportunity to cure your kith and kin of the pie-in-the-sky notion that they’re going to be on the receiving end of every book you ever publish just because they know you.
Something else the general public does not know about publishing: these days, the author often pays for those give-away copies. Even if the publishing contract is generous with advance copies, authors are expected to use them for promotional purposes, not as freebies for their relatives. And while the author is generally able to purchase additional copies at a substantial discount, those books do not count toward sales totals.
What half of you just shouted is quite correct: promising your kith and kin free copies may actually harm your overall sales statistics. So the sooner you can get your loved ones to accept that the best thing they can do to support your writing career is to plan to buy your books early and often, the happier you will be in the long run — and thus the more joyful you will be at future holiday gatherings.
Hint, hint. Tell Grandpa Gregor you’ll be overjoyed to sign any copies he buys, and leave it at that.
In that same spirit of blowing off some steam, let me throw the question open to you, readers: how do you cope with this avocation-specific form of holiday stress? Have you come up with clever comebacks, succinct explanations, cunning evasions, or other brilliant coping mechanisms that you would like to share with the Author! Author! community? Or, alternatively, a funny story about the time that you couldn’t stand it anymore and tossed a candied yam at an over-persistent relative who kept asking why you haven’t given up by now?
I probably shouldn’t encourage such behavior, but I have to admit, I would probably get some vicarious pleasure from hearing about it. I suspect I am not alone in that.
Oh, you may smile, but realizing that other writers routinely find themselves on the receiving end of these questions can be very helpful in maintaining a smile while passing the cranberry sauce. Trust me on this one: every single author you admire has been through something similar. It’s a very common way for writers to suffer for their art.
Try not to take it personally; it’s an avocational hazard. Have a lovely Thanksgiving, everybody, and keep up the good work!