View Full Version : What Folks Really Want to Know...

10-15-2004, 12:02 AM
...when they ask, "Oh, you're a writer. What do you write?"

Hmmm, I'm guessing you'll all agree when I say they want to know if we're making money or if we're on the verge of being famous. Can't blame folks for being interested, or me I guess for being paranoid!

And so my question here (and as usual I didn't know where the heck to put this): What do you all say when you get asked that question? I mean I don't think I owe it to anyone to tell them about everything I write, everything I've ever had published, but I feel like they're thinking I'm a fraud when I only give highlights.

Any thoughts?


10-15-2004, 12:09 AM
Hi, Sandra. I'm moving this to Office Party. I'll respond when it's over there.

10-15-2004, 12:19 AM
This gets to me, too. But you know what? You're not acting like a fraud when you only give highlights. Those are the accomplishments that are IMPORTANT. Think of it: "Oh, I've written blah blah blah blah blah blah blah Popular Mechanics and blah blah blah." The PM clip is a highlight but if you run through everything else BEFORE a highlight, they'll likely be long gone before they even hear it.

And you DO want to toot your horn on that, right? ;)

I suspect what these folks are really hoping to hear is that you've written some kind of bestselling novel or that you had lunch with Dean Koontz, or something. Or maybe they are holding their breath that you turn out to be some kind of obscure author of a great novel. Then they can call up their best friend and say something like, "Gladys! You'll never guess who I met at the supermarket today!"

Instead of giving them the rundown, just sum up what you write. Books, articleas, short stories, poetry, scripts, plays, flyers -- whatever. Don't feel you have to aoplogize for not being famous (but, if you are, go ahead and toot that horn). If they wanna know where they can read your stuff at, they'll ask.

You know what else bugs me, though? People who think that once you've got a book (or two) under your belt, you're rolling in the dough.

10-15-2004, 12:43 AM
If you saw my work, you would see that I never get asked that question :)

Kempo Kid
10-15-2004, 03:57 AM
Some people seem to throw that out as a challenge. "You're a writer, huh? So what have you published?" I tell them. "Oh, yeah? Well, I've never heard of you."

What do I say to that? Not every writer is Tom Clancy or Dave Barry. Most people who earn their living as a writer aren't household names. Am I supposed to feel ashamed that they've never heard of me? Am I supposed to apologize for it?

It just leaves me nonplussed. I truly don't know what reaction they think is appropriate.

Not that it matters really. I'll go continue to live my nonfamous life no matter how they feel about the matter.

10-15-2004, 06:03 AM
the kinds of questions people ask say reams about their values.

10-15-2004, 06:15 AM
I don't mind people asking -- usually they're just curious and they want to know where they can buy my books or read my articles etc. Occasionally I get those "oh you're a writer, huh?" sneers and I usually just smile politely, and wish I could say, "Not like you read anyway."

10-15-2004, 07:32 AM
I'm not published yet, so I deal with this by not dealing with it. Nobody knows I write (why would they ask?) and I don't volunteer the information. Everyone just considers me a student, and that's well enough for me right now.

aka eraser
10-15-2004, 08:48 PM
...when they ask, "Oh, you're a writer. What do you write?"

I usually take the question literally and depending on my mood may answer "words mostly" - accompanied by a smile of course - or "essays, articles and one book so far, usually in a humourous vein."

The answers will depend on the questioner. If they're truly interested in particulars, I'll give them. If not, I won't.

10-16-2004, 01:14 AM
There's a certain cachet that goes with the public perception of 'Writer'. Most folks don't know what the job is all about, they just hear of Steven King and Michael Crichton and the millions they make and some wonder if you might be dipping your toe into that ocean of cash as well. Then they get to say they know a Writer, hoping perhaps that their own social standing will rise as a result.

At least that's how I am when I meet a movie or sports star. :grin

10-16-2004, 01:19 AM
"What do you all say when you get asked that question?"

I don't get asked that question. I start by saying "I create puzzles for magazines. It involves writing and drawing" or some such thing.

If people ask you what you write because you've introduced yourself as a writer, you might try introducing yourself differently.

10-16-2004, 01:26 AM
Some past replies to the question:

A. Ingredients on cereal boxes

B. Traffic sign text (My brothers claim I'm under-qualified for this job, but I figured it was a sure fire method to being widely read. Or totally ignored)

C. Blurbs for rail car graffitti

D. The Old Testament. I'm especially proud of Psalms.

10-16-2004, 02:14 AM
Yeah, I answer according to my mood sometimes, not always a good thing. I use "words", but also add "paragraphs, sentences." And then sometimes I try to gauge their understanding and answer accordingly, usually unsuccessfully (gauging their understanding).

I write articles, essays, short stories, poems, ad copy, commercials, greeting cards, foreign policy. I add the last one to see if they're listening.

OH, and then how about offering them something you've written to read on their own. The reaction to that is telling, too.

Thanks, everybody.

10-16-2004, 02:25 AM
Traffic sign text (My brothers claim I'm under-qualified for this job, but I figured it was a sure fire method to being widely read. Or totally ignored)

:ha Unfortunately, I know someone who ignores them. She's no longer driving...

When I told someone I once chatted with that I wrote a novel, the response was, "Wow, I can tell people I know a famous author and you can tell people you know someone struck by lightning." (True story.)

I like the "words" response, though.

10-16-2004, 06:27 AM
To answer "words" or "paragraphs" strikes me as rather smarty-pantsy. The interrogator will go away thinking "Writers are hard to talk to. I asked a question that showed interest, and I got a dismissive answer."

10-16-2004, 09:10 AM
Well, I wouldn't say that just to be a smarty-pants...

10-16-2004, 11:00 AM
I think it depends on the spirit in which the question is asked. I'm seldom glib with people who seem to express a sincere interest. On the hand, I'm not especially inclined to be forthcoming with folks that pose the question as some sort of a challenge.

Thankfully, I've encountered only a few of the latter.

10-16-2004, 07:52 PM
Thankfully, I've encountered only a few of the latter.

Probably from the Heathen Horde...

10-16-2004, 08:09 PM
LOL @ Liam.

Actually when I am asked that question I have a fall-back. I tell them I write business plans and Operations Procedures which is essentially my base job. Then I say I piddle with a couple of novels and write jokes. By that time they are bored out of thier skin because the only reason they ask is that they want a brief answer before you say "And what do YOU do?"


10-16-2004, 08:48 PM
If they ask, I assume they are interested.

How hard is it to say:
"I freelance for magazines"
"I write for trade publications"
"I write how-to books"

You can leave it at that, giving them the option to ask further questions if they are truly interested. Or, you can add "How about you?" and put the ball back in their court.

Getting a smarty or sarcastic answer is a real turn off no matter what ones occupation.

10-17-2004, 06:22 AM
D. The Old Testament. I'm especially proud of Psalms.

But Liam, you couldn't have written the whole thing, 'cause my name's on one of them there books... :b

Loved the "ingredients on cereal boxes" answer. You write 'em, I'll read 'em... :grin

10-18-2004, 12:45 AM
I think the answer "words" and/or "words, paragraphs, sentences" can be taken differently depending on the delivery. Like it's not what you say, but how you say it.

And you're not gonna please everybody all the time, nor should you even try to with either your questions or answers about writing, life, the price of eggs in China.

I have a hard enough time staying focused when I'm writing, but when I'm verbalizing about writing, I hear myself start to babble incoherently and scatter my thoughts like fried onions on hash browns...but then that's probably another story.

And that's really all I have to say about that.


10-18-2004, 02:19 AM
I tell people I write a column, I freelance, and I am writing my second novel. If they're really interested I'll tell them more. If not, I don't really frigging care.

It's not like I care about what they do as an accountant either.

10-18-2004, 06:35 AM
My answer to that question really depends on where I meet the questioner. If I'm at a business networking function or a Chamber of Commerce card exchange, I'm definitely not going to blow someone off or wear a chip on my shoulder. You never know where the next web copy job, brochure or radio script will come from! Plus, I look forward to finding out about THEIR chosen profession and what floats their boat...it's all about the customer's needs and wants, and how my written words can enhance their image.

That said, there are always those at parties and such who love to show you up or make you feel insignificant if you don't have a Pulitzer...so what? Who cares? I'm good enough to demand good money for what I do. I make no excuses. For those, the "words" or "paragraphs" line would be fun. Hehe.

10-18-2004, 11:03 AM
Reading through the replies so far, I couldn't help noticing a certain defensiveness.

In my experience, people in general and Americans in particular are anxious to know what one does for a crust. I must confess to harbouring a suspicion that in the latter case it's because they want to know whether they should either:

a) look up to you as a success or potential celebrity in whose reflected glory they can bask, by slim acquaintance.

or -

b) look down on you as an ordinary workaday Joe who earns less than they do and possibly lives in a trailer park.

But I could be wrong. (Cowers in anticipation of flak. <img border=0 src="http://www.ezboard.com/image/posticons/pi_sharpteeth.gif" /> )

When I'm not in the mood for conversation, I usually say I'm a condom salesman, and that normally curtails the discussion.

Anyway, the occupation of writer is an honourable one (with the possible exception of journalism), if poorly rewarded, and I believe we should all be proud to admit to it, without the need for any smartarse comebacks in anticipation of potential sneers. The trick is to have your 'elevator pitch' - a 20-60 second summary of what you do and why you're incredible - constantly poised on the tip of your tongue. If you can work any of the words 'Pulitzer', 'Booker' or 'Nobel' into it, so much the better.

<a href="http://crustyworld.blogspot.com" target="_new">crustyworld.blogspot.com</a>

10-18-2004, 08:44 PM
I think the term "writer" fall into the category of artist, actor, singer, filmmaker, scientist, etc.

If you tell someone you're a doctor or an accountant or a business manager, they pretty much know what you do, and that you're making a pretty decent living, have a house and 2.5 kids, etc. etc. There's not a lot of surprise there.

But writer? It either means you're rich and a celebrity like JK Rowling or Stephen King, or some nobody wanna-be slacker who makes $2000 a year (same thing when you tell people you're an actor)... and in most cases, it's the latter. And that inferiority complex also shows through us because not many of us have made it "big" either.

Then there's also that curiosity. It's one of such professions where your name goes with your product. You're making a product (your novel, your non-fiction book, your article) with your name associated with it -- it's intriguing to a lot of people. It ties back to the fame thing. And some people are genuinely interested in seeing where they can see your product and your name in print -- and perhaps rub off that quasi idea of fame. Like wow, your name is that magazine? You wrote that piece? I also sense a combination of admiration/intrigue/resentment/jealousy when people find out you have a book out there, or that you're in a movie, or you've discovered the cure for AIDS.

10-19-2004, 12:50 AM
There's a mystique around "being a writer." We all grew up surrounded by printed matter, and we knew it was important. (Certainly it was important in school.) Most of us didn't know anyone who created it. Where did that stuff come from? Some far-off celestial realm, evidently. At least, that was my childhood impression in a small town in a region where the chief occupation was farming. So I can understand the awe that someone might feel when meeting a person who actually MAKES those things called BOOKS (articles, columns, whatever).

When I tell people I write puzzles, they usually sound excited, as if I'd said "I advise diplomats on foreign policy and design ball gowns for royalty" or something.

10-20-2004, 04:47 PM
The problem, I think, is that so much of the reaction relates to the credits. When people used to ask me if they might have read any of my work and I answered, "Well, do you read Salon.com? No? College Bound? No, right, you're 43... um... how about this other e-zine?" and their eyes glazed and I could just feeeeel the "Uh-huh. So you're a poor wannabe who doesn't have a real job" thing. Now, when people ask what I write, and I can tell them about my 13 books, the celebrity ghostwriting, the articles in grocery-store mags, etc., it's a whole different thing. Suddenly I'm someone to be admired. Sure, it's natural and somewhat warranted, but you know what? I was a good writer back when Salon and College Bound were my only credits, too. I hated feeling sheepish about my job because I wasn't yet well-published.

10-20-2004, 08:13 PM
There's a couple different answers I use, depending on if they're really interested or not. AND what the context behind it is.

If it's a friend of a friend or family member, I start out with "short stories, some poems, and I'm working on a novel." If they're not interested, that's it. If they are, they ask and I answer.


If it's someone in business who is in the position to make such decisions, I bypass that in favor of something else. This is where I mention web pages, brochures, etc., and throw in that I'm currently the 1st VP for the state writers' organization.

(That has yet to pay off, but you never know when/if it will.)


10-20-2004, 08:47 PM
Frankly, I would just as soon never tell people I write.

My credits are so obscure to most people that it's embarrassing.

10-20-2004, 10:35 PM
You should never be ashamed of your work, even if you clean public toilets for a living...

10-21-2004, 01:14 AM
Maestro's right. About the toilets, I mean. I remember when I was a kid, my dad had to clean toilets - and floors - for seven years. He was probably the most educated janitor of all time: a Doctor of Theology with a scrub brush...


Iustitia, Consilium et Aequitas

10-21-2004, 07:38 AM

So that's what my theology degree will qualify me for... :b

aka eraser
10-21-2004, 09:23 AM
I write full time now and am also Chief Toilet Cleaner around these parts.

It's a glamorous life - don't let anyone tell ya different.

10-21-2004, 08:32 PM
Hey, someone's gotta do it, and it might as well be you, Frank.

10-22-2004, 03:14 AM
And they do say that cleanliness is next to godliness.

10-22-2004, 09:39 PM
And they do say that cleanliness is next to godliness.
So that means Frank is a god?


Do you get a cool membership card?

10-22-2004, 09:45 PM
So that means Frank is a god?

That smells fishy to me...

10-23-2004, 12:48 AM
A demigod, at best.

aka eraser
10-23-2004, 05:23 AM

I need a guy-who-looks-like-a-fisherman-blowing-a-raspberry smiley over here in Aisle 6!


10-23-2004, 06:37 AM
Well, the fish probably think so. Big hook falling mysteriously from the sky? Power of life and death? Sacrifice of the Chosen One on the Altar of the Great Frying Pan, annointed by the Sacred Oils?

There's probably a thriving Frank Cult in the depths of that lake of his.


10-23-2004, 06:40 AM
'anointed' even.

Vodka plays merry hell with one's spelling skills.

10-23-2004, 06:54 AM
aq. I didn't even notice your spelling. Course, that could be cause I can't spell worth a hoot. Problem could be trying to be in the chat room and read posts. Reading in the chat room's not hard, you haven't said anything.