“How’s the writing going?”
Since I’ve started declaring myself to be a writer this is a question that family and friends often ask – and one that I find difficult to answer.
Perhaps if I was a ‘proper’ novelist it would be easy. I’d say that I was working on the edits requested by my publisher for one book and drafting a synopsis for the next bestseller with my agent – all quite simple and successful sounding.
But in reality I’m more likely to be still smarting from last week’s womag rejection, wondering why I didn’t make the shortlist of that competition I entered, trying to decide whether or not I can turn the anecdote I heard about someone’s long-lost cat into a short story for People’s Friend and toying with the idea of having a go at a serial – if only I could think of a strong enough idea.
None of that sounds very professional, so I could give them the sales spiel about my latest Kindle e-book (click here if you’re interested) but then they’d probably exclaim that they didn’t have a Kindle. And their eyes would glaze over if I tried to explain that anyone can read Kindle books on a PC or laptop if they download the free Kindle app.
So before I say anything I try and guess what they want to hear. Are they just asking out of politeness in the same way that acquintances you meet in the street ask ‘How are you?’ and expect no answer, other than ‘Fine, thank you. How are you?’ Or are they genuinely interested?
If it’s the former, I’ll be brief and positive, ‘I had a story published last month and have just submitted a couple more so, fingers-crossed, I might get some more good news.’
If it’s the latter, I’ll start slowly trying to explain how I’m trying to lengthen a ‘twist in the tale’ that Take a Break didn’t want in order to make it fit the bill at The Weekly News. But as soon as I sense I’ve lost them, I change the subject and remark on the weather.
Is it me, or is it very difficult to talk about writing to a non-writer?
What do you answer when people politely ask, ‘How’s the writing going?’
#1 by blogaboutwriting on May 9, 2014 - 2:14 pm
Sally, I agree, it’s difficult. In fact, my heart sinks when someone asks me that question! Where do you start? And if you start reeling off ‘well, I had a story accepted last week and I won blah blah competition’ it sounds like showing off and I always feel like a little kid trying to ‘prove’ myself! I think the answer is – there is no good answer (unless, as you say, you’re a novelist, happily engaged in your fifth commissioned novel..), so I just try to change the subject! (because ‘how’s the writing going?’ is almost ALWAYS followed by ‘when are you going to write a novel?’) aaaagh!
#2 by Sally Jenkins on May 9, 2014 - 2:45 pm
Yes, Helen – people always seem disappointed if you don’t have a novel to your name!
#3 by Debbie Young on May 9, 2014 - 2:15 pm
That’s a very interesting point, Sally. I have a similar dilemma in some respects because two of my books are of no interest to people who aren’t authors or self-publishers – “Sell Your Books!” which is book promotion advice for authors keen to do what it says on the cover (!), and “Opening Up To Indie Authors”, a campaigning book I’ve co-authored with Dan Holloway for the Alliance of Independent Authors. So I’ll be very pleased indeed to published my first collection of flash fiction next month (“Quick Change” – about to go out to beta readers now) so that it’s something I don’t have to explain. Except most people won’t know what flash fiction is either, so I’ll just say “very short stories”! Maybe I should just write a novel and be done with it (not!)
I must admit I don’t generally enter competitions or submit short stories to mags because I don’t think I could take the rejection! It would also require time and concentration to send things out there and keep track of what’s where. That’s why I’m so thankful to be writing in the internet age, where I can publish what I like, whether in ebook, book form or simply on my blog – though of course it’s a double-edged sword because if people don’t like it, their rejections will be in public in the form of comments and Amazon reviews!
Still, I wouldn’t have it any other way! Thanks for another thoughtful post, Sally!
#4 by Sally Jenkins on May 9, 2014 - 2:51 pm
Thanks for taking the time to comment, Debbie. Good Luck with ‘Quick Change’ and make sure you mention it whenever anyone asks about your writing!By the way don’t worry about the Amazon reviews – all 5 star reviews looks like you’ve got too many helpful friends cheering you on, potential readers will be more trusting if there’s a few others in there too. And it can be difficult to get any reviews at all!
#5 by Wendy Clarke on May 9, 2014 - 2:15 pm
Usually I keep it very short, depending on who asks me. If it’s my mum then she gets a very detailed answer of everything I’ve been doing. If it’s a friend, I’m usually rather vague and say something like, ‘Oh, pretty good. I’ve managed to get a couple of projects finished this week.”
#6 by Sally Jenkins on May 9, 2014 - 2:53 pm
Sounds good, Wendy. And mums are good at listening to it all and nodding wisely – and then saying how wonderful everything you do is!
#7 by Edith on May 9, 2014 - 2:24 pm
I simply panic when I’m asked until I realise that I had a review recently published, so I mutter something about that or some small article published. Then I deftly switch the subject to the weather! 🙂
#8 by Sally Jenkins on May 9, 2014 - 2:54 pm
Sounds like we’re all the same, Edith. Perhaps we need to practise talking about our successes without sounding boastful.
#9 by Tracy Fells on May 9, 2014 - 2:40 pm
I find any of my friends who ask this question are usually not writers and aren’t really interested in the answer. Like you I go for something simple before their eyes glaze over. We all need a good writing buddy, someone who understands the ups and downs of writing as a career. I’m lucky to have Wendy living close by and I know you meet with Helen. Or being a member of a serious writing group helps too.
#10 by Sally Jenkins on May 9, 2014 - 2:55 pm
Agreed, Tracy. It’s best to save the ‘proper’ writing talk for those who understand and find something bland to say to everyone else.
#11 by jacky on May 9, 2014 - 2:56 pm
I usually reply ‘It’s Not!’ and that changes the subject very rapidly.
#12 by Sally Jenkins on May 9, 2014 - 3:23 pm
And we’ve all experienced that ‘It’s not!’ feeling much too often – so it’s probably a true statement!
#13 by susanjanejones on May 9, 2014 - 2:58 pm
Hi Sally, my family are proud of me, and they tell people for me, ‘oh she’s a brilliant writer.’ Alan tells people ‘oh, yes, Sue’s had loads of stories published, and she’s writing a novel. I look at him and think. am I? I play it down, well, I’m honest:))) After they know you write things, people look much more wary at you I’ve found. Yet, when I do get my novel published, you’ll hear me shouting from here to yours…
#14 by Sally Jenkins on May 9, 2014 - 3:26 pm
It’s great that Alan’s so proud of you, Susan. My mum’s a bit like that – she’s a great publicity assistant, telling all and sundry to buy my ebooks. And I’ll listen out for your shout about that novel!
#15 by Julia Thorley on May 9, 2014 - 3:15 pm
Like Wendy, I usually say something vague but positive. ‘Really busy at the moment, thanks,’ or some such. The other thing I dread is: ‘I thought I might write a book,’ as though it were that easy! Oh, and ‘Have you written anything I might have read?’
#16 by Sally Jenkins on May 9, 2014 - 3:28 pm
I always try and be encouraging if someone says, “I’d like to write a book.” But you do know that most of them won’t even attempt it.
#17 by julielees on May 9, 2014 - 3:15 pm
It’s even worse when you’re still trying to get published and your writing aspirations are considered no more than mere frippery, without any substance. I’m sure there are some, although not all, who can’t wait for the day when I finally wake up and smell the coffee and decide to get a proper job again.
#18 by Sally Jenkins on May 9, 2014 - 3:30 pm
That’s a difficult position, Julie. People’s attitudes can make writing a real uphill struggle – I guess that’s why so many of us keep it a secret for so long. Good Luck in your endeavours!
#19 by Harliqueen on May 9, 2014 - 4:30 pm
I totally agree. That’s a question that gets asked a lot and I’m never sure quite how to answer it, I don’t think non-writers realise how complicated a process it is, and one small thing can make a huge difference! 😀
#20 by Sally Jenkins on May 10, 2014 - 2:32 pm
Spot on, Harliqueen. I suppose most non-writers think it’s just a case of churning out the words but, we all know, that is not the case!
#21 by Amanda Martin (writermummy) on May 9, 2014 - 4:46 pm
It’s not much different if you’re writing novels. They take so long to write, people expect you to have finished and you have to explain (if they’re interested, which isn’t often) that you’re on first draft, second draft, edits, proof-reading… And I always feel compelled to add, “I’m only self-published” because people who don’t know me ALWAYS say “will I have heard of you?” as if there aren’t a million authors on Amazon.
Thankfully I only know one person, someone I bump into occassionally when walking the dog, who is even remotely interested, and we usually end up talking about my blog because her daughter blogs! It’s not a glamourous life. But then people were even less interested when I was a marketing manager!
#22 by Sally Jenkins on May 10, 2014 - 2:35 pm
Definitely not glamorous, Amanda, there’s a lot of blood sweat and tears! Perhaps you should miss out the word ‘only’ when explaining you’re self-published and also put on a ‘proud’ voice.
#23 by Amanda Martin (writermummy) on May 10, 2014 - 9:35 pm
I’ll have to practise that! 🙂
#24 by jacky on May 9, 2014 - 6:17 pm
Well at least it sorts out the genuine enquiries from the rest!! I hope you don’t experience the It’s Not syndrome too frequently Sally, your blogs are always interesting, especially so since we live at either the end of, or the gateway to, Africa.
#25 by Liz Young on May 9, 2014 - 8:33 pm
The minute I say “I’m not published yet,” their eyes glaze over and their expression shouts, “So she’s not really a writer.”
#26 by Sally Jenkins on May 10, 2014 - 2:38 pm
If you write, Liz, then you are a writer – and you definitely would be in the eyes of another writer. Perhaps we need to educate the general public.
#27 by hilarycustancegreen on May 9, 2014 - 9:44 pm
You have really hit a nerve here. I last published in 2008. I have two more books waiting in the wings, but I can’t face another Christmas of relatives’ and friends’ concerned enquiries. They are sometimes so convincing about wanting to read the next one that I bore them with developments that mean little to a non-writer. Or I say I’ve made no progress and have to stop myself from playing the sympathy card.
So I have now purchased the publishing software and my clever cousin is coming to stay and in a week’s time I will have my novel in publishable format. It will all take another three months after that to tweak, proof-read, decide on covers etc. I can’t throw away all the goodwill and kind readers my first two novels have gained, but I would much rather be a writer than a publisher.
#28 by Sally Jenkins on May 10, 2014 - 2:40 pm
That’s great, Hilary! I wish you every success with this next publication – well done you! And you’ll have it all done well before Christmas so you can do some showing off (& maybe give signed copies as Xmas presents).
#29 by Linda on May 10, 2014 - 7:29 pm
‘Fine, thanks. And how are you? What are you doing?’
In other words, I change the subject as quickly as I can!
I’m happy to tell people when I have something published – and I welcome any feedback once it’s ‘out there’ – but my nearest and dearest know I hate talking about my work-in-progress so thankfully they rarely ask.
If other people ask I tend to mumble something like ‘Oh, I’m just working on some short stories’ or ‘Plodding on with the novel’ but I don’t want to go into any more detail because if I hear myself explaining what I’m writing I’m sure I’ll think it’s rubbish too!
#30 by Sally Jenkins on May 10, 2014 - 7:44 pm
Linda, I really empathise on that point about talking in detail about a WIP – explaining the twists and turns of a plot out loud does seem to make it all sound amateurish and then it’s easy to lose confidence in it. I agree it’s best to just fob them off until it’s all finished.
#31 by Patsy on May 11, 2014 - 8:23 am
I usually do reply in the same was as if they’d asked after my health. If there’s a magazine in the shops with one of my stories in or I have some kind of ‘event’ coming up I might mention that. Usually those who’re actually interested in my writing (as opposed to me as a friend or family member) already know how the writing is going as I’ve already bled their ears.
#32 by Sally Jenkins on May 11, 2014 - 2:47 pm
I think you’ve got the right idea, Patsy. Most non-writers are only interested in concrete successes and not the nitty-gritty of a WIP.
#33 by charliebritten on May 12, 2014 - 9:43 pm
I’m afraid I cop out, Sally. I just don’t talk much about my writing to real people. Online I belong to a group where we’re encouraged to SHOUT our successes, and that works well for me. Real people (like family) don’t understand how momentous each success feels and how gutted you are after each rejection.
#34 by Sally Jenkins on May 13, 2014 - 6:41 am
You’re right, Charlie. I can dance around the house shouting that I’ve had a story accepted but my family look at me as though I’m mad and over-reacting. I tend to keep quiet about the rejections and lick my wounds in private. But your online group sounds a good way of communicating with people who understand.
#35 by helenlaycock on May 13, 2014 - 5:29 pm
It’s never the opening question to the conversation, is it? Once all the ‘important’ subjects are out of the way – gossip,family, health and weather, it’s asked out of politeness. It’s easier to say, ‘Oh, fine, thank you’ than to go into all the nitty gritty of editing, publishing and how it feels to be deflated on a regular basis…
#36 by Sally Jenkins on May 13, 2014 - 5:38 pm
True, Helen. I think it often is asked when the other person can’t think of any other conversation. Perhaps we should just be glad they’ve remembered we’re a writer.
#37 by madisondusome on May 14, 2014 - 12:17 am
I think judging what they really want to hear is key – but that’s normal, isn’t it? Even when people ask how I am, how’s work, how’s that latest silly art project, they rarely ACTUALLY want to know. I start with something easy: “I just finished my first revision” – or whatever – and if they ask more after that, I engage. But really, I love when people ask how my writing is going; it means they know what my passion is. They are asking about my nearest and dearest. Even if they don’t care, at least they care enough about ME to ask 🙂
#38 by Sally Jenkins on May 14, 2014 - 6:53 am
A great comment, Madison. You’re right we should take it as a compliment that they’ve taken the time to ask about our dearest passion – but still we should be careful not to bore them lest they never ask again!