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. :)

4 Best Questions to Ask 

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
you have ever asked me one of these questions, rest assured I love you very much and I really don't mind. They are common questions that every writer gets. But there are some questions that are very discouraging to try to answer. I want tell you why they're hard for writers to talk about, so you can have easier and more interesting conversations with them.

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?

Blessings,
Schuyler

12 comments:

  1. One question which I would love people to avoid asking me is "So what's your novel/story/novella about?" I mean, with close friends who are writers and are understanding, I don't mind going into an awkward rant about what my work is about, but I feel really insecure when I tell non-writers what I'm writing. It might just be me, but I hate that question.
    One question which I would love for people to ask me is "Which authors inspire you to write better?" I think it's wonderful to talk about what inspires you as a writer, and maybe for us introverts it would feel better to avert attention away from ourselves.
    "How did you start writing?" or "What's your writing journey been like?" would also be a great question. Asking how long a writer has been writing, however, is a rather awkward question, because it leaves no room for elaboration.
    So, that' my two cents (more like twenty-two cents 0.o). ;)

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    1. That is a tough question, and I have only ever come up with a garbled response. O.o Totally sympathize. I have settled now for telling people about the time period, and conflicts surrounding that, rather than the basic plot of my book.

      Excellent questions, Victoria! Those would lead to interesting and open-ended conversations!

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  2. This is an excellent post - definitely looking forward to the rest of the series. :)
    I can say I learnt a lot, and it's crazy how we miss the obvious, but I have honestly never thought of praying for writers before, so thank you!

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    1. Prayer is so, so precious. I know your writer friends will deeply appreciate it. :)

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  3. This is an excellent post, Schuyler. I will be honest and say probably some of the questions that would bother you haven't yet been asked me, like "so what do you do besides writing?", because I am still in high-school. And to be even asked some of those "annoying" questions on writing for me wouldn't make me too upset because it means they show the slightest interest in my pursuit of novel-writing! Usually my acquaintances, relatives and friends are a bit muffed that my dream is to be a novelist; I personally hate the awkwardness of explaining my passion for writing, stories and literature. . . like they don't understand why I would waste my time on writing "novels" :). I guess a lot of people don't see the worth of novels as anything more than a bit of "trashy" Netflix entertainment; when I try to explain my vision behind being a writer, I just get the "blank stare". When I am asked what I want to study after school, and say I would like to study English literature and have an interest in writing, usually the response I get would be "Do you want to be a journalist?" :P

    "Can I offer you some writing advice?" - that one though! Haha, yes, I am pretty familiar with that one. Usually the advice I get is something like, "a lot of famous authors' first books were memoirs. You should totally write something from life experience, a story and place you are familiar with instead of something foreign to you!". . .

    "Thank you VERY much" :P

    Probably what would annoy me the most is attitude rather than the questions. Since very few of my friends, despite knowing I write, ask me how my writing is going except maybe an occasional "are you writing a new book?", I generally have to volunteer any details about my writing projects and interests. . . what I really appreciate is when people take a genuine interest, ask questions about my story and what are its themes or where/what is it set in; or just generally when they encourage me that what I am doing is something positive, exciting or of worth. Somehow that is the hardest thing for me, when my calling as a writer is deemed a bit odd and eccentric.

    But I love it on the few occasions when a friend shows interest in the themes or setting of my story, definitely! Once, I told our parish priest about my theme for "A Love that Never Fails" and how when I was editing it with the editors, they did not understand the theme that "love never fails" being not about romance mainly but about true Christian love. Anyway, the priest was very encouraging as I shared this, and he thought it great that I wanted to share my faith and the truth of Christian love in my writing with those editors. That definitely encouraged me!

    I appreciated your points on good discussion topics, Schuyler :) . . . looking forward to the coming writing conversations posts!

    Blessings!

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    1. Aw, I'm so sorry you don't have a lot of writing friends in person who love your work. That can be very hard, and I hope we can get together some day and have a nice writing chat to fill your hungry soul. You are right--attitude makes all the difference in the world. Condescension and boredom are challenging to deal with graciously.

      I loved that story about your parish priest! He gave you some good encouragement, and lots of times it's all about those little connections that keep us writers going, isn't it? :)

      And don't try to write memoirs if that's not your bent. That's as bad as someone saying "maybe you can write your church newsletter." :P If they don't get the vision, then say thank-you and leave it be. Write what you love. As much as your imagination can hold is what you can safely write.

      Love to you!
      Schuyler

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  4. I loved this post so much! I don't think I've ever encountered "worst questions #2-3" but the "What do you do besides writing" question actually doesn't bother me in the slightest (b/c I have a ready answer: I'm a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom of three!) then I generally get the "when in the deep world do you have time to WRITE?" gasping response. But yes, yes, yes to question 1, because "I don't know" is definitely my answer 99.99999% of the time. (In that .000001% of the time that I know the answer, it's nice to be asked, though, just so I can reply confidently with whatever date it is) :)

    Do you have any tips for authors on how to answer the question, "What is your story about?" Because, I, like Joy, am always very daunted by that question, but it's one I know I SHOULD be able to answer... and I should be able to answer it succinctly and confidently, but it's a question that often leaves me stumbling around in the dark, as if I have no idea what the story is about. We authors put so much time and effort into polishing the perfect blurb, and then someone goes and asks us that question and it's not like you can answer by saying, "Well, when Dark Warriors invade her country, it is up to Princess Kamarie, her eccentric maid, and a reluctant young squire to seek out the one man who may be able to save them all... the hope of their world may rest on the steel he wears at his side..."

    I mean, I suppose I COULD say that, but it sounds ridiculous as the answer to a question.

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    1. Way to go for homeschooling and writing! You mamas make my day, because someday I want to homeschool, but I want to keep up the writing as well. You're a real inspiration! :)

      I think 'What is your story about' is a great article idea. :) I might tackle that sometime. It IS very hard--I generally stumble out something about the setting or the genre--but the plot itself is hard. Writing an elevator pitch did help a little, but I could only give it to agents because it had spoilers. :) Something I'll have to mull over....

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  5. This is a really great post. ^ ^ As a writer, it feels like people treat you differently than other professions and give it less respect. The most hurtful comment I've gotten is: "Are you /still/ writing?" I had to bite back the retort, "Are you /still/ a firefighter?" It would be nice to just be treated like writing is just as good as a career as any other instead of it being an abstract one if that makes sense.

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

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    1. Yeah. Situations like that are very tough. That's why it's nice to have other writer friends who can be supportive and encouraging partners. Writing is proved through time, and as hard as it is, we have to wait for people to see the harvest. Keep going in the strength of the Lord!

      ~Schuyler

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  6. I love how you explained question #4, because as a writer I often don't know what to say when someone asks me what else I do. They don't seem to understand that being an author is a full time job. :)

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    1. So glad it could help you out! It's a point I think about often. :)

      ~Schuyler

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