How To Make Conversation with a Writer

This is a stupid-sounding topic. We all know how to chat with people in unique fields, like astrophysics, training Arabian stallions and, er, writing. You just flail around for something interesting to ask, and come up with, maybe: Is a black hole really eating up our galaxy?  Or, are there any Arabian female horses? I know you can do better, but I think those aren’t half-bad, given how little I know about astrophysics and horses.

But if making small talk with horse trainers and other odd-jobbers isn’t all that hard, why are folks so often uncomfortable chatting up authors? I watch people at conventions talk to prominent authors, and it isn’t pretty. I get a few whoppers myself.

So, given that we’ve got a big writers’ convention in my city on Saturday, I thought I’d list some less-than-ideal questions and suggest alternatives.

Most of you don’t need this kind of help. You wouldn’t, for instance, ever ask a writer:

1. How much money do you make on a book?

Astonishing, but authors do get asked this. Sometimes it’s more subtle, like: How much would I make if I were you? Or, how many books do you sell? Even that last one edges into finding out how much money an author earns. Best not to go there.

Instead: How easy is it for a new author to earn a living a writing?

2. So, what do you write?

If you’re at a convention, and this person is a speaker, you should know what they write. Even if you’re just asking someone like me, think of how hard your next question is going to be.

Person wishing to start a conversation: So, Kay, what do you write?

Me: Science fiction and fantasy.

PWTSAC: Oh. I never read that sort of thing.

Me: Oh.

PWTSAC: Er.

3. Have you ever tried writing something I do like, like mysteries?

Me: No.

PWTSAC: Do you know where the bathroom is?

Honestly, I have gotten question #3! Apparently the person is so unsettled that he has never read anything of mine–and never plans to–that now he’s truly flailing for something nice to say.

Instead: Science fiction, huh? I bet that’s a tough field. This is a great response. It allows the writer to complain and bitch about the field, which sets everyone at ease, because, like, we’re all struggling in life, and here this fancy author is also disgruntled!

4. Do they have your book at (local bookstore, the library, Barnes and Noble)?

Me: I don’t know.

Authors don’t often keep track of who is stocking their books. Presumably all the right places are, but if the writer doesn’t have anything terribly current, then maybe B&N won’t have it. And, the library, are you kidding me? We’ve just me and you’re telling me you won’t buy my book? Please keep this information under wraps. Yeah, I get books at the library sometimes, too, but it’s just a tad off to say this.

5. Will you sign my program?

I know, I know. This seems like a harmless practice, but at a signing if you are standing in line, and taking an author’s time, you should have a real book for them to autograph. It’s just a courtesy.

6. When does the movie version come out?

Is this a person’s way of saying that they can’t be bothered reading, but would watch a movie of your story? This might be a well-meaning question, but it’s just a fact that very few writers sell movie rights, and while that’s no shame, it’s no great honor, either. Best not to bring it up, maybe.

7. Will you read my manuscript and give me some pointers?

No, the author won’t. Authors are overworked, underpaid, scrambling to find writing time, and have a backlog of things they are supposed to read for blurbs (requests from their editor), or from the 5-10 people who they owe favors to. Still, they feel rotten for turning you down. Please don’t ask unless the author is a good personal friend. Furthermore, even if the author says yes, you may not get what you want out of the experience: My post on this topic.

8. I’ve always wanted to write a novel about (fill in long drawn-out description here.)

This is like telling that horse-trainer that you have a way with animals and think it would be pretty easy to get a horse to stand on a barrel by whispering to them. You may indeed have a dynamite idea for a novel, but it’s just a little off to tell a professional writer that you’d certainly write a novel if you had the time and the determination. Time and determination are 80% of it. And of course, holding a writer hostage to your story description is like telling a doctor at a cocktail party about your recent back surgery.

Instead: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. What’s a good way to get my feet wet?

More insteads:

In your panel I heard you say “revision can do violence to the work” (or whatever).  What did you mean?

I’m always looking for good books. Where would I start among your works?

Why are movie versions of books often disappointing?

If you have read the author’s work: Who is your favorite character in your book, “_____.”

What writers inspire you?

And if you happen to know the answer to that black hole question, definitely let me know.

6 Responses

  1. Interesting post, Kay. I don’t think it’s a stupid title or stupid subject matter to address. Alas, the people who will make the mistakes like asking, “How much money do you make?” are probably not the people who read writer websites. Too bad.

  2. Tim Lavrouhin says:

    Kay,
    Love your work. Have written once before. Seeds of Time, Leap Point, Entire and Rose, all Genius!!. Let’s take a glass half full view here. When someone asks “When is the Movie coming out?” maybe they just think the book is so good they can’t wait to see it on the big screen? I think Seeds would rival Avatar. David Weber’s “Apocolyps Troll” would make a good one too. I know, I know, 600+ pages down to maybe 300 double spaced, but still, the genre lends it self to the big screen so well. Seeds would have to be at least a 3 movie franchise. But what a story. And still so timely. Love ya!

  3. Kay says:

    Well, with such kind words, then I must agree! If they’ve read the book, then it’s a nice compliment. I always think I write to a large canvass; maybe big screen as well–but you know Hollywood wants those best-sellers to ensure box office.

  4. Excellent post Kay. I can make use of your suggestions for “insteads.” Sometimes when I do author presentations I like to “plant” questions among teachers/staff in case I get a shy crowd. And here’s one more awkward question for your list: “My life story would make a great book. Would you write it for me?” I never know how to respond to this one, other than “I’m flattered but you would be old and gray by the time I get around to it.”

  5. Kay says:

    Wow, you actually get that question? I never have, thank goodness!
    How about this answer: “What kind of budget do you have for that project?”

  6. Excellent suggestion! But what will I do if they actually give me a figure?

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