Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Phrases That Make Writers Twitch

If you're a writer, there are always going to be people who don't "get" what you do. No matter how successful you become, no matter if you sell one book or a million, there are always going to be people who, well-meaning as they may be, will drive you insane with phrases that, should you answer them in the manner deserved, would make you out to be a real asshole, even if you're not. You know the ones I'm talking about. You've heard them. Don't lie. And if you haven't heard them, trust me. You will. They're coming. Here's a preview:

  • I have a great idea for a story!  You write it, and we'll split the profit! - Really, Hemmingway?  What this translates to is "I have a vague concept, but I want you to do all the work and I get half of the massive royalty that we're sure to get."  There are a couple of problems with this phrase.  First, this shows that the speaker has no concept of what it takes to write or market a novel.  Second, they have no idea how little royalties actually amount to.  Third, there is a real job that does exclusively what they're suggesting.  It's called "Ghost Writing," and it costs.  (You didn't really think Snookie wrote that book herself, did you?)  Ghost writers charge in the thousands for their services, and when it's all done, their names appear nowhere on the project.  So, yes, I can be hired for ghost writing services, for a price.
  • You're published!  You must be rich! - Um...Not really.  While I do consider myself wealthy in the area of friends, experiences, and artistic endeavors, I'm still financially poor as a church mouse.  In fact, many writers are.  Most of us, I'd say.  For every Stephen King (more money than any one human should have), there are about a thousand like me who is hustling and trying to scrape by.  
  • Can I borrow/have a copy of your book?  We're friends, right? - Most authors get a few copies of their books for promotional purposes, true.  But the bottom line is, we don't get paid unless those books sell.  We have a paltry advance that we need to earn out, and after that, our royalties (usually around 10% of retail cost of the book...Do the math...it's depressing) are only paid in accordance to our sales.  Let's put this another way.  You have a friend who's a plumber and your toilet backs up.  Do you expect your friend, the plumber, to just fix it for free because, hey, you're friends and he doesn't have bills to pay, right?  No.  And that's the same way it is with writers.  If a writer does decide to give you one of the few free copies he has of his book, step back and realize how much of a complement that is to you, and appreciate that, basically, he's handing you his newborn child. 
  • Yeah, I was thinking about writing a book... - So do it.  That's a lot like walking up to a professional piano player and saying "yeah...I could probably do what you're doing now..." It's a little insulting.  The person who says this isn't trying to be insulting, but they honestly have no idea, again, what it means to be a writer.  Consider how much training it takes to work in ANY specialized field, whether it's music, sports, medicine, etc, and then think about how ridiculous it would sound to walk up to a doctor and say "Yeah, I was thinking of picking up surgery as a hobby..."  Way to trivialize.  
  • Hey, you're published...Wanna read my..? - Um...No.  Here's why.  It's not that writers are all universal assholes or that we don't think you're that good.  It's that, generally, we don't have time.  At all.  We spend so much time working on our own material that we often don't come up for air for days, or even weeks, at a time.  Seriously.  Plus, there's another danger:  Plagerists and opportunists.  Sure, I know you would never accuse me of stealing your idea, but I have to cover my butt.  I'm sure every other person who's been hit with a lawsuit over "idea stealing" thought the same thing.  Eddie Murphy wrote Harlem Nights, then got sued by a guy who claimed he stole the idea from his unfinished screenplay, Harlem Evenings.  (Note:  I'm not sure if that last part was true... It was part of Murphy's stand-up act, but it's still a valid point).  If a writer offers to read your stuff, you're entering a level of trust with him to not steal your stuff.  Really, who do you trust?  
  • Could you just throw us any old story?  We can't pay you... - Not to sound mercenary, but again, see the analogy about the plumber.  Look, it's not that we are against helping small presses or that sort of thing.  It's just that we're trying to make a living too.  Seriously.  We don't typically keep drawers full of stories labeled "crappy enough to be free."  We put a lot of time and effort into what we write.  And, much like you at your day-job, we expect to be paid for it.  Now occasionally, we do donate pieces to a good cause or something like that.  In which case, realize that we're giving all that we have, the best we can give, because our words mean that much to us.
  • I don't like reading... - This is the granddaddy of them all, the one that spits in the face of every writer out there and lets us know that the speaker thinks we are worthless and trivial.  Seriously.  Think about every person who means something to you in your life.  Think about your job.  How would you react if someone actually walked up to you and said, in so many words, that you were unnecessary and wasting your time.  And, by the way, you may not like reading, but think about where your movies and television would be without writers.  Nowhere.  Sure, you say, reality TV is all the rage, but if you think that none of that is actually scripted, I've got some real estate to sell you.  Reading is one of the greatest accomplishments by human kind.  "I don't like reading" or "I don't read" or any of the thousands of variations thereof shows two things:  Ignorance and laziness.  
Here's the thing, folks...In the writing community, I'm considered to be a guy with a pretty thick skin.  People can insult my work all day long (and often do) and I won't take offense.  People can dislike my stories, and even dislike me as a person, and I'm fine with that.  I'm comfortable with who I am and I don't really take most things personally.  But the phrases above (and there are MANY more of them, but those are the top of the list for now) do, and should, raise the hackles of most any professional writer out there.   And while most of us (most of us) won't commit acts of violence against people who utter the above phrases, keep in mind how offensive those phrases can be.  Keep in mind to whom you're talking.  And keep in mind how you'd like to be treated.

Just my unsolicited $.02...

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