Thursday, January 24, 2013

The five most, um, unhelpful things people say to writers


Elizabeth Zelvin

Why don’t you write a book about... Writing a book is an intense and time-consuming process. There are only a couple of reasons I would commit to this herculean task. (1) I have something to say and feel passionate about saying it. In my mystery series, starting with Death Will Get You Sober, I had something to say about recovery from alcoholism: It’s a transformative process that can be miraculous and awe-inspiring. Further, I said something that I don’t think anyone, at least any mystery novelist, had said before: Sobriety can be fun. (2) A character wells up in my unconscious and starts to talk in a distinctive voice, beating on the inside of my head and demanding to be let out. (I suspect this is what writers throughout history have meant by “inspiration” and “the Muse”.) This happened with Diego, the young marrano sailor with Columbus who appeared in my two stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and a still unpublished novel. If your why-don’t-you is an idle comment off the top of your head, believe me, it won’t inspire me. If, on the other hand, it’s something you feel passionate about, write the book yourself.

I have a great idea for you. There are several variants of this one. One old friend was very insistent about the value of her idea: “I can tell you the whole plot and everything.” A beloved elderly relative called me up long-distance, she was so excited about the idea that I could rework my mother’s 1967 doctoral thesis about wiretapping, published just before the digital age took off. “I bet it would be a bestseller,” she said, demonstrating profound ignorance of the nature of bestsellers. I’ve also been asked to write someone else’s book for pay. Now, some writers are real pros at this and do it well. Donald Bain, for one, has had a brilliant career as a ghostwriter and co-author. Better him than me. I was once contacted as someone who knew West Africa (I spent two years there in the Peace Corps in the Sixties) and might be able to help a lady who’d been there—as a missionary? a diplomatic wife? I can’t remember—and come away indignant about polygamy. As a favor to the contact person, I took a look at her voluminous notes—a mass of incoherent thought that you couldn’t have paid me a fortune to dig into and try to organize into a literate manuscript.

I’d write one if I had the time. Who has time? I did much of my professional writing while working a full time job and maintaining a private practice as a therapist. My mystery writing (three published novels, two novellas, a dozen short stories) and the massive work of marketing it to agents and publishers and promoting it to readers coexists with my online therapy practice, being a wife, mother, and doting grandma, keeping up my end of two blogs, aka unpaid journalism, the 400 hours I put into recording the CD of my music that came out last year, the increasing attention my health and fitness needs as I get older, and all the maintenance chores of a complex, high-tech 21st century life. Nobody gets a garret with a desk and a view of Paris or complete freedom from the dust bunnies, the laundry, the supermarket, and waiting for the plumber and the cable guy.

I'll get it from the library. This would be okay if those who say it would ask their local library to order the book and actually check it out when it arrives. But all too often, it’s code for, “I won’t spend the money for your book.” Authors whose books don’t sell become authors without publishers, authors whose later works will not be found on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.

Why don’t you self-publish online? Gee, why didn’t I think of that? I certainly know writers who have taken that route and made it work for them. My own experience is that I would have to do the same amount of aggressive self-promotion, or more, if I published my own work as e-books, as I did with a Big Six publisher, a medium-sized publisher, and and two reputable and experienced e-publishers. The print publishers, however, spared me the expense of producing the books and marketing them to retailers and libraries, while the e-publishers provided me with final editing, formatting for online retailers, commissioning a cover, and finding the best ways to manipulate the Amazon algorithms (or appeasing the Anaconda, as my latest publisher calls it). In my youth, I made the mistake of thinking working as an editor for a publishing company would lead to being a writer. I’m a lot older and, I hope, wiser now. If I wanted to be a publisher, I’d invest my energy in publishing. But I don’t.

11 comments:

Julia Buckley said...

This is really interesting, Liz--you should write a book about it. :)

Seriously, though, it must be universal, because I have both family members and co-workers regularly saying, if an interesting topic comes up in conversation, "You should write a book about that." As though I might just return home and quickly write a book that evening.

Kate Gallison said...

I got a Facebook message last week from a woman I haven't seen since high school. It was all in caps. KATE! YOU WRITE BOOKS! I answered, yes, and gave her a number of hints as to where to find them, thinking, oboy, another reader. I HAVE A GREAT STORY FOR YOU, she replied. I WOULD WRITE IT MYSELF BUT I'M NOT A WRITER. CALL ME IF YOU WANT TO HEAR THE WHOLE THING. Anyone out there want her number?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Yep, that's how it goes. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but how will they know if we don't tell them?

Sandra Parshall said...

I love libraries, but I suspect, as you do, that many people who say they'll get it from the library are simply telling us politely that they don't plan to read our books. And ideas from readers seldom jibe with my interests. One woman suggested that I write a mystery about home mortgage fraud. Sorry, but no.

Bonnie said...

I *do* ask the library to purchase a book if they don't have it and the Kindle or other ebook price is outside my budget. They even put me on the hold list when the book comes in! I have heard that authors get royalties for books checked out from the library, but I don't think that's the case in the U.S. Maybe we should write our Congresswomen!

Leslie Budewitz said...

So what do you say when someone urges you to read their book, and it isn't your cuppa, or you know you can't squeeze it in. Just "sounds interesting -- good luck"?

And Bonnie, you're right -- no such system in the U.S. I do appreciate how willing my local library is to buy books that are requested.

Sarah Glenn said...

You left out one of my faves: "You based this character on me, didn't you?" My dad was convinced he was the inspiration for several characters, including a female lizard elder that my spouse had created.

Sheila Connolly said...

I think I prefer "Wow, you write books? You must be smart!" But what on earth do you say in response to that?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I've never gotten that one, Sheila. But I think a gracious "Thank you" would be appropriate. :)

Steven M. Moore said...

My solution to the library comment was to give copies of my trade paperbacks to the library. They became so worn and tired, I had to repeat. Not exactly selling books, but at least someone is reading.
In general, I resonated with the points made here. I get them all the time. Here's a different one: "If you'd just write a vampire romance novel, I'd read that!"

Diana Gould said...

I like, "Are you working? Or just writing?" Also, "I'm a verbal writer. I can talk it, I just can't write it down."