10 weird questions people ask writers
When people ask me what I do for a living, I'm stoked to be able to finally say, “I am a writer.” Whether it's writing fiction or non-fiction books, coaching, speaking, building this site, or working freelance – whatever I’m doing, it involves manipulating words in some way.
Telling people you’re a writer can lead to some pretty interesting discussions, from listening politely while people describe their brilliant novels ideas to debating the use of unreliable narrators and introducing people at dinner parties to the concept of ergodic literature, it seems that writers are always in demand at social functions.
I can’t speak for other writers, but I get the same questions again and again. Some of them are great, and some are just … odd. Here are some questions people often ask me, and all the things I say (or would like to say) in reply.
WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS?
Maybe it’s because I am a writer, but of all the questions to ask, I find this exceptionally dull. I mean, where does anyone’s ideas come from? From the wobbly grey matter between their ears.
The idea isn’t the important part. Everyone and their uncle has an idea for a character or a book. If you tell people you're a writer, you'll hear them all.
I bet you could come up with an idea right now. Robert Greeves has to save the world from gigantic caterpillars who are systematically wiping out all the vegetation. Ursela Gumpty wakes up one day to discover she is a bat. Rebecca Snizzlebob desperately wants to win the speed-eating championship, but is she desperate enough to make a deal with the devil? (actually, that lost one has some potential …)
When I meet a creative person, I never want to hear about their ideas. I’m more interested in their process or their medium or their expression. I’m also more often then not envious of their shoes.
To answer the question, I usually get ideas by asking myself questions. “What would happen if the world actually behaved like this?” “What would have to happen to a good person to make them do this?” “What if you woke up one morning and things were like this?” Usually, I ask myself these questions when I’m not doing anything else – either while I’m in the shower, or out on a run, or waiting for the bus.
Neil Gaiman has a lovely essay on answering the question of where he gets his ideas from. Preach it, Mr. Gaiman.
HAVE I HEARD OF YOU?
I don’t know. Have you?
I mean, there are tens of thousands of writers in the world. Probably even hundreds of thousands who are currently writing or have recently written. And that’s not even including all the writers who wrote and then died. And you read, what, twelve books a year? And you think I’m secretly hiding my identity as Patricia Cornwell?
To answer you question, it’s unlikely you’ve heard of me unless your a regular and voracious reader of indie romance or science fiction. But I don’t measure my success by how many people recognise my name, so that’s OK.
ARE YOU TRYING TO GET YOUR BOOKS MADE INTO MOVIES?
I think I hear this question a lot because people have seen a ton of movies that were once books. I think especially if you’re not an avid reader you may assume this is the ultimate goal of any writer. In actual fact, its something so unlikely to happen that it doesn’t even register as something to aim for.
Don’t get me wrong, if one of my books was optioned for film or a studio approached me about it, I would be over the moon with excitement. But I try to focus my efforts on goals that I can control. So I’m too busy writing the next book.
ARE YOUR SEX-SCENES WRITTEN FROM REAL LIFE?
I find this question SO ODD because no one asks a mystery writer if all their murder scenes are written from real life experience. No one asks me if I’ve ever met a vampire or seen a man turn into a raven or chased a dinosaur through the streets of Victorian London. But no writer could possibly invent a sex scene from thin air …
The answer is no, they come from my head, like all of the stuff in all of my books. They are driven by the characters – I’m not trying to write a manual or an essay about my own experiences, I’m trying to create a scene that rings true to the experiences and chemistry and tastes of the characters.
There is a small element of truth in all writing, because you have to dig into your own emotions and understand them in order to write about them convincingly for a character. I think as a writer we’re probably writing scenes we enjoy because we love our characters and want them to have superfunsexytimes.
But does my husband tie me up to medieval torture devices like Ulrich in the Witch Hunter series? If he did, do you think I’d tell you?
If you read a scene and you wonder if it’s real, realise the emotions are probably real to the writer, but everything else is made up.
"The idea isn't the important part. Everyone and their uncle has an idea for a book. And if you tell people you're a writer, you'll hear them all."
Writer and publishing coach.
WHY DO YOU LIKE TO WRITE?
I actually answered this question in-depth in a post on my personal blog – Why I Write.
I HAVE THIS GREAT IDEA FOR A BOOK. IT'LL BE AN INSTANT BESTSELLER – GUARANTEED. HOW ABOUT I EXPLAIN IT TO YOU, THEN YOU WRITE THE BOOK AND WE'LL SPLIT THE ROYALTIES
How about No?
No no no no no.
Y— wait. Had you fooled. No.
Ideas are the easy part. I think I said this earlier. I literally have ideas for more than twenty books I’d love to write, all of which are probably more commercially viable than your idea, because I do this writing thing as a job and I know what the market wants.
How about I give YOU an idea, and YOU go and spend months or years writing 70,000 cohesive words based on that idea, while I go to the beach? And then I’ll take 50% of the royalties? How good does that sound?
Yeah. I thought so.
I don’t want your idea. And I can tell you right now it is not worth 50% royalties from a book that might take me months to write. I do answer this question politely when someone asks it, but it does rankle, as it belittles the hard work that goes into writing a book.
WHICH BOOKSTORES STOCK YOUR BOOK? CAN I BORROW IT FROM THE LIBRARY?
This question always catches me off-guard. I’m now so used to thinking about books being electronic (and writing and speaking to that market) that it’s odd when I speak to someone who old reads in hard copy.
To answer the question, I’m unlikely to be in any stores. A bookstore could order copies of my books if you asked them, but you’d be better off buying them online from Amazon.
Most people don’t understand the differences between indie and traditionally published writers, or why some writers focus on the ebook market while others sell primarily in paperback or hardback. I try to explain a bit, but sometimes it can be more hassle than it’s worth.
Although, in saying this, talking about print versus electronic and bookstores can actually lead into a really cool discussion. Once I went to a dinner party at our neighbours house and I said my books were only available from Amazon. He whipped out his phone and brought a copy of The Sunken right there!
YOU WRITE SCIENCE FICTION/GOTHIC/PARANORMAL ROMANCE? ARE YOU JUST LIKE <INSERT NAME OF FAMOUS BUT UNRELATED AUTHOR HERE>?
Yes, exactly like them. I just copy/paste, change “Muggle” to “Dinosaur”, and hit publish.
I don’t mind this question, although sometimes it can be confusing as I might not know the authors they compare me too. Sometimes, people are fishing in a completely unrelated genre, which can be a bit odd. I had an interview the other day where the interviewer clearly read mostly on the literary side of the spectrum, and I am thoroughly and unapologetically genre. She was trying to compare my gothic romance books to a lot of gothic literature, and it just wasn’t working.
CAN YOU READ THIS THING I'VE WRITTEN?
No. And you don’t want me to.
I only have a very limited amount of free time, and I honestly prefer to spend it hanging out with my husband and my cats then reading other people’s usually atrocious writing for no compensation. I gave up paid freelancing three years ago in order to pursue my own passion for writing fiction, and that was also when I gave up saying Yes to projects I really didn’t want to do.
Very few people actually want to hear what I’d say about their writing. The truth is, I approach writing in a very specific way, with the goal of selling books and making a career out of it. If you’re writing in a genre I’m not that familiar with, or you’re doing something that’s not commercial, or you’re doing a commercial thing in a non-commercial way, or you’re writing just for fun and all you want to hear is “great work! Keep going.”, I am probably not the right person to speak to.
I am not a brutal person by nature, and I’m pretty good at making sunshine and unicorns out of harsh criticism, but I will still tell you honestly what I think, and after pouring your heart and soul into a piece, most people probably don’t want to hear that.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE TRYING TO WRITE THEIR FIRST BOOK?
What did Yoda say? "Do or do not – there is no try."
Writing is like any other sport, hobby, or pursuit. The more you do it, the better at it you get. Practicing every day makes you better. You’re exercising those muscles the same way you train for a marathon. Write every day. Set yourself a word count goal (I always advise people to start with 250 words a day. That’s about three paragraphs, but by the end of a year, you’d have a full novel). Just write until you hit it.
Don’t worry about what words you’re using. Don’t fret about syntax or go loopy over flowery prose. Just push a story out through your fingers. Read this motivational article by Chuck Wendig, and get back to writing.
MORE WEIRD QUESTIONS
I am definitely not the only writer who experiences weird questions. There’s actually an astute and hilarious article in the Irish Times about weird questions writers are asked at interviews. And another interesting piece on Talking Writing about women writers and bad interviews. I haven’t really been interviewed enough to comment on this article’s subject matter, but it is some interesting food for thought.
What odd questions do you get asked about YOUR profession?
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