How to Make Small Talk with a Writer
We've all been there: social events where we know three people and have to be introduced to fifteen. The usual, unimaginative questions will be laid upon you: Where do you guys live? How long have you been in [insert city here]? What do you do?
The last question still gives me heart palpitations. What I really want to say is, NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS I'D RATHER STARE AT YOU BLANKLY THAN SAY I'M WRITING A BOOK! But that would not be proper cocktail behavior, would it?
It's not the stranger's fault that I quit my job to pursue a dream that is little more likely to happen than becoming a Broadway sensation. The stranger simply wants to be able to talk to me about something. It is the way of small talk. In fact, at this point, it is probably more uncomfortable for the stranger to learn that I am a "writer" than it is for me to say it.
So here are some helpful tips for those who know a (hopeful) writer and have absolutely no idea what to say to her.
- DO ask what the title is, the genre, and the general plot. Even if it seems like we are fumbling to find the words, it is very good practice for us to be able to sum up the book with confidence. You are doing us a favor.
- DON'T ask "How's the book coming?" I know it sounds innocuous enough, but that question can bring on an anxiety attack for someone like me who would love to have an answer other than "It's still coming ..." Manuscripts take a long, long time. This is particularly true for those of us with training wheels still on.
- DO ask about the villain or the protagonist. If you want to really dazzle your writer acquaintance, ask what personality type these characters are, or what they want at the beginning of the story.
- DON'T suggest self-publishing as if it is something the writer has never heard of before. Trust us, we've considered it. If the writer shares that she has self-published, give her a big pat on the back, because that is as time-consuming and frustrating as running one's own business.
- DO ask how the idea for the book came about. In general, that's an easy one to answer. While you're at it, you can ask what ideas are marinating for future projects. This can be one of my very favorite things to share, because the pressure of writing hasn't begun and the ideas are just floating around like pretty, shapeless clouds. Now, some can be a little guarded about their ideas (silly, because seriously who has time to steal other people's book ideas?), so just keep that in mind.
- CAUTIOUSLY offer a friend, co-worker, sister, or butcher as a great editor or beta reader, considering whether the person is a good fit for the writer. For one, their interests have to line up. If the butcher writes adult mysteries in his spare time and the writer you just met writes picture books, you aren't making a viable connection. Secondly, the person you are offering should be sensitive yet objective enough to really be of help to the writer. I recently was put in touch with an editor of non-fiction, self-help books. He looked at my first five (adventure fantasy) pages and I could almost hear him yawning through his three sentence critique. It was positively soul crushing and hardly the opportunity I was hoping for. But we appreciate the thought! Really!
- PLEASE ask the writer about her website and where you can find her! It will make her very life complete.
- Best of all, DO talk to the writer about your favorite books, particularly in the genre she is writing. Odds are, that writer can talk about this subject all day. Bonus points: the pressure is off her to try and impress you with her own project. Plus it's just so darn helpful to know what people like in your genre, and why!
I am always caught off guard when someone replies, "Wow! That's amazing!" to my occupational confession. Of course, not everyone can summon this kind of sweet support. But perhaps now, dear stranger, you can look with compassion on we dewy-eyed visionaries with whom you make acquaintance.
At least you're not that delusional, right?