Friday, May 1, 2015
How to Talk to a Writer (For All Non-Writing Friends)
Communication between writers and non-writers can be difficult. There's this hidden language of fiction writers that other people just plain don't relate to ("Your character told you they didn't like their plot? Um, hello, I thought you were writing fiction.") Understandably, conversations can get stilted, and if you start off with the #1 conversation-killer: "When are you getting published?" they'll be so traumatized looking for the 1001 way to say "I don't know", that they'll make a quick exit.
They don't know when they're getting published. Your watch and my weather and the publisher's budget and yesterday's breakfast all have to conspire together at just the right time. Until that happens, a writer's responsibility is to keep writing.
But writers love to talk about their writing, and non-writers can have valuable and exciting perspectives to give. Now that I'm finished writing my book, I want to post a few articles to bridge the gap and explain in non-writing terms what this process is like. I love to make people comfortable enough to have conversations with each other, and I want to help you know what goes on in a writer's world.
If you know a writer, here are 4 easy questions that you can use when talking with them about their book, and 4 questions to avoid. The questions are calculated to lead to other related topics. If your writer friend is a mature conversationalist, it should give you a much more fruitful and interesting discussion than hearing them say "I don't know" all the time. :)
1. What setting/time period is your story in?
A book's setting is the country and culture that the story takes place in. This can be a really neat conversation, because chances are your writer friend has studied the Revolutionary War or World War 2 or Medieval England and collected a lot of facts you might be interested in knowing. If they write fantasy (creating their own worlds like Narnia or Middle Earth) then they'll have even more to share.
Don't test their knowledge by quizzing them if you know a lot about their book's time period. That shuts down conversations very quickly. A novel can only cover a tiny sliver of a war, and if General Jack Pershing has no bearing on their story, they probably didn't take the time to research him. Offer to share with them what you know, and most authors will be more than happy to receive the free research help.
2. What do you want your story to accomplish?
Young writers nowadays are becoming extremely visionary. They are using their books to share the gospel, debunk evolution, inspire people to advance the kingdom of God, talk about politics, slavery, medical care, etc. Sometimes they simply want to provide Christian entertainment. Find out what their vision is. Most would love to share, and if they don't have a vision, your question might get them thinking about why they write.
3. What does your writing process look like? Can you show me some of the tools or inspiration you use?
Writers have Pinterest boards of actor pictures, photos of their setting, and objects in their story. These are things they use to help bring the story alive so that you as the reader can feel like you are experiencing it. Many writers would be very happy to show you some pictures, and so thrilled that you asked. Also, some authors use software specifically created for writing novels. You might be interested in seeing that too. If they're feeling really comfortable, they might pull out a notebook and ask you to read samples of their writing. Most authors love to hear what you think of their writing. Personally, I would love to show anyone Pinterest boards and scrapbooks of the things I'm working on, and I love to show snippets as well on occasion.
4. How can I be in prayer for your book?
Writer or non-writer, every Christian prays. And authors really rely on your prayers for them. By the end of my novel, I was asking a lot of people to pray for me, because I was very overwhelmed. Fixing plots so they make sense, making characters lovable (or hatable) and catching all the grammatical errors are not easy. If you can't think of any other question, this is the number 1 best question to ask a writer friend. If you want to be a regular prayer partner, that would be a huge gift to give them.
4 Worst Questions To Avoid
I feel somewhat awkward about including these, as I have been asked a combination of all of them. If
1. When are you getting published?
If you're meeting a writer for the first time, go ahead and ask them this question. If they have a book published, they'll be excited to share. If they aren't published, however, try to limit asking the same question to about once every three or four months. That keeps them from feeling pressured. When writers feel pressured, they start sending incomplete proposals to agents, and that damages their reputation in the publishing community. That's not good. Try one of the above questions in the meantime.
2. Can I offer you some writing advice?
In all graciousness, please no. If you do, the writer should smile and thank you and think about what you have said. But they seek out a lot of advice from professionals in their field, and having a non-writer say "You should really do this" is like having a non-parent say "You should really raise your child this way." Generally nobody appreciates that. :)
Lest you think you can't give any help, please do send suggestions! New parents don't mind helpful suggestions, and young authors don't either. Publishers you hear about, articles connected to their writing, or people you think they could connect with are all great. Send them writing blog links or people to follow on Twitter. Then let them decide if that fits with their book's vision. Asking "do you mind if I share something with you?" is a nice gesture, but not necessary every time.
Having a mindset to share with them, not to fix their problems, makes all the difference.
3. Aren't you done yet?
This is another really painful question. We set goals, but real life happens. Family gets sick, we get behind in book research, or the writing just plain doesn't go well. Sometimes we have to extend our deadlines, even though we're pulling late nights to fit writing time in. Most of us feel really guilty when we don't meet our goal. The only question worse than "aren't you done yet" is "why is this deadline important to you?" A simple "keep me updated on your progress" is a great thing to say instead.
4. So what do you do besides writing?
It's not a bad question, but it leads to a dead-end conversation. To be honest, we can't think of anything. Writing is a full-time job. Writers spend hours (unpaid hours) working on it every day. Granted, there are many hobby writers out there, but a lot of people consider their writing a career. This is the one professional field where you do the work before you get paid. Writers are willing to do that because they love writing, and they feel the Lord has called them to do it. But even though they're not getting money, they put in the same work hours someone would working at a coffee shop or as a waitress or as a customer service associate. In other words, writing is their main focus. There aren't hours and hours of time they have to fill besides writing. If they get time, they'll go to a Bible study, read a book, sleep, watch Netflix, or get out a craft project: just like you! :)
Truly, I hope this article helps give you some good conversation ideas. I've watched and experienced how hard it can be to bridge the gap between writers and non-writers, and my heart's desire is to facilitate open sharing. I am not in any way trying to say that writers deserve special treatment. Writers should be able to talk to people even if the 4 worst questions are asked, and they are responsible to answer in a mature manner. But I do hope that this article arms you with some questions so you feel more comfortable around writing friends.
This is the first in a series of articles about writing conversations that I hope to share throughout the spring. Stay tuned for more to come.
For non-writers, are there any ways that writers could make it easier for you to talk to them?
And for writers, do you have more good questions non-writers can ask that you would love to answer?