Twenty Things...by Cypher Lx on 07/09/12
Twenty Things NOT To Say To A Writer
1. "Have I read anything you've written?"
People ask me this all the time.
Come on, dude, how would I (or any other writer) have the faintest idea
what you have read? I'm a novelist, not a psychic.
Recommended instead: "What's your latest (or next) release?" Or: "Can
you name some of your titles? I read a lot, so maybe I know your work."
2. "Have you ever had anything published?"
Actually, this is a fair question, given that some aspiring writers call themselves
"writers" when asked what they "do." But anyone who writes professionally is
so tired of being asked that, they may remove your tongue if they hear that
question even one more time.
So I recommend that you instead ask, "What's your latest release?" A
professional novelist will answer this question. (And an aspiring writer who
has not had anything published will presumably clarify the situation.)
3. "How much money do you make?"
Yes, people ask us this. Surprisingly often.
Try instead: "What sort of money do writers make?" Which is probably
a lot closer to what most people are wondering when they ask
invasive questions about my personal earnings.
There's a lot to say about money in this industry; writers discuss it
often with each other and are probably willing to tell you a bit about
how money works in publishing. But if your mother didn't teach you
this, then I'll say it now: Asking someone whom you scarcely
know how much money she makes is rude.
4. "Where do you get your ideas?"
Probably the single most-asked question.
Pardon me while I yawn.
Getting story ideas is simply the way writers think. Some people can play
the piano by ear, some people have perfect pitch, and some are natural
athletes. Writers get story ideas; if we didn't, we wouldn't be writers.
But, okay, for some specific examples and anecdotes from me and from
some other writers, see the "Where Do You Get Those Crazy Ideas?"
page of this website.
5. "Will you write my great story idea and then split the income
To clear up a couple of common misconceptions: (a) Ideas are not the
crucial aspect of successful fiction; execution is. (b) Ideas are not the
hard part of writing a novel; writing is the hard part.
In using her skills to write your idea for you, a writer has nothing to gain,
and a great deal to lose—such as time, energy, career momentum, and
6. "If you help me write my life story, I'll split the income with you
after we sell the book."
Unless publishers are already interested in publishing your life story
(probably because your life is already being splashed all over the media,
but possibly because you are a well-known expert at something unusual
or important), the chances that anyone will pay you (or, more importantly,
pay me) for your life story are remote.
7. "I'm going to write a book someday when I have time."
We hear this one all the time, everywhere we go. Statistically, there are
more people in America who say they "want to write a book someday"
than there are people who read books.
Realistically, if you're not already writing, the chances that you're ever
going to start writing are marginal. Most people never get past just talking
Additionally, most people who start writing a book never finish it. (And most
people who finish writing one whole book... never sell it and never write
The only people who write, who stick with it, and who have a serious chance
of becoming professionals are the ones who can't stand not writing. And you
already know who you are. (Hi, there!)
8. "Will you read my manuscript?"
Aaaagh! Back—back, foul beast! Back, I say! Stay in your lair!
Now and for all time, if a writer is willing to read your manuscript,
she'lloffer. Because, believe me, she gets asked this so often
(sooooooo often) than she knows you want her to offer.
But do not put a writer on the spot by asking. The list of reasons is
example, this being a much bigger imposition than you realize
(much), the probability of injured feelings (yours), and legal risks for
the writer (yes, really).
9. "Will you read the manuscript of my
Remember what I just said about how awkwardly it puts the writer on
the spot if you ask her to read your manuscript? Well, take that and
multiply it by thirty if you're not even asking her for yourself, but
rather for someone whom you love.
10. "Will you introduce me to your agent?"
This, too, really puts the writer on the spot. For a long list of possible
reasons. Your excellent work may not be suitable for her agent. Or
your work may be unprofessional and unpublishable, and the writer
is too polite to tell you so. Or the writer may have had a catastrophic
experience with the last person whom she referred to her agent and
been warned (by the agent) not to do it again. Or the writer may be
having problems with her current her agent, and she neither wants
to discuss those with you nor refer potential clients to an agent whom
she's finding problematic. And so on and so forth. So just don't ask.
If the writer thinks it's a good idea, she'll bring it up. (Yes, really.)
11. "Do those [insert dismissive adjective here] books that you
churn out sell well?"
If someone isn't deeply invested in her writing, then there are many much
(much) easier ways to make a living than writing books, which is insanely
competitive, disastrously unstable, and skull-crushingly difficult to do.
So try not to slap a writer in the face with this sort of comment, which we
hear more often than you would believe.
12. "How long does it take to write a book?"
This is a lot like asking how long it takes to have sex. I mean... it all
depends, doesn't it?
"How long it takes to write a book" varies tremendously, based on the
specific writer in question and on the specific book in question. So it
can take two weeks or two decades. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.
13. "Do you get to choose your own book covers?"
Pardon my weary sigh of resignation.
Most writers have little or no say in how their books are packaged**,
and any writer who's been working for a while has probably had at
least one dog of a cover that killed her sales figures and/or
embarrassed her. For more information on this subject, see
A Book By Its Cover elsewhere on this website. (**However, when
it comes to the new and expanding practice of writers self-publishing
their own ebooks, we do often have control over our covers, since we
are, in effect, the publisher. On the other hand, writers also usually
have more modest fiscal resources than major publishers do for creating
14. "I bought your book at the second-hand bookstore."
Writers only earn income from new/retail sales, not from used-book
sales. And not earning income makes it hard for us to eat—and we
really like to eat. So we encourage you to buy our books from new/retail
venues if you want to read them, not used/second-hand. Personally,
I also encourage my readers to check out my books via their local library
system. (However, if a book of mine is no longer available in new/retail
venues, and can only be purchased second-hand, then, by all means, buy
it used. In addition to eating, I like to be read.)
15. "I'd like to try one of your books, but I'm waiting to see if any of
them become available as free ebooks." [Or some variation thereof.]
If you're unwilling to pay for a writer's book, you're well within your rights (as
long as you don't download or share a pirated copy). But perhaps you could
omit telling the writer that you don't think his work is worth paying for.
16. "You should write [insert recommendation here]."
If you're a doctor, do I tell you what ailments you should treat? If you're a
contractor, do I tell you what you should build? If you're truck driver, do I
tell you what kind of merchandise you should transport?
17. "Here's what I didn't really like about your book..."
It's the editor's job to point out to a writer where a manuscript has problems,
so the writer can fix them. And once a book is published, readers have lots
of opportunity to post on websites and blogs what they think of a book
(including what they didn't like about it), as well as to share their opinions in
person with friends, family, and co-workers.
But you might want to seriously consider how you expect anyone, including a
writer, to react when you say directly to him, without being asked or invited,
"Let me tell you what I don't like about the way you do your job."
18. "Will any of your books be made into a movie?"
This is not a decision made by writers, it's made by movie producers—
i.e. the people who brought you Porky's, Gigli, and Armageddon. So,
realistically, the chances are always very remote.
However, if a writer has a movie deal, you won't need to ask this question—
nor will you be able to get a word in edgewise.
19. "You must be rich. I just spent $7.99 on your book!"
Writers only get a tiny percentage of the cover price (ex. 8%), and we
only get it about two years after you buy the book, and we only get it then
if (a) the book has earned-out its advance payment (most books don't),
and (b) the publisher is maintaining accurate accounts (which is not
universally the case).
20. "As long as my story's really good, an editor will be happy to
correct my shaky punctuation and grammar, right?"
Reality check: If someone's going to pay you to write, then the very least
they expect is that your written language skills will be immaculate.
(Unless, of course, you're a politician, a politician's former lover, a rock star,
a movie star, a supermodel, a billionaire's widow, etc., etc. In which case,
you don't even need to be able to scratch your name in the dirt with a stick
to get a multi-million dollar book deal. But I digress.)