"So, when are we getting published?": Or What Not to Say to a Writer

Four years ago, I was deep into the research for this novel, reading every psychological case study I could get my hands on about the pathology of my antagonist. At the time I didn't have a lot actually written; I was still deep in preparation mode. But I believed the advice that said it's good to make your goals public, because then you'll have many friends and family members to hold you accountable.

I'm not necessarily knocking that advice now, and it made sense back when I had oh, 100 or so facebook friends, most of whom were other writers. It was sort of fun to write about what scene I was working on that day, and how many words I'd written. I moved through draft 1 fairly quickly, bringing many people along with my process.

Flashforward to now, four years or so later, and the book is still not done. Now I'm on my third draft, still working away, trying to get the thing finally ready for agents. And now I have over 600 facebook friends, from all ages and all walks of life. Yesterday I used this to my advantage, by making a facebook status about my recent crisis of confidence in my ability to carry off this novel. Several friends answered, all with words of encouragement and sound advice. I felt better. The scene got better. But today when I checked facebook, I really related to one of my friends' statuses. Like me, she's been working on her book for the past 4-5 years. Like me, she's getting ready to query.

Her status said that she regretted the day she told people she was writing a novel, and that she hated certain "conversation killers," like "when is your book releasing?" or "why is it taking you so long?" I told her I related and admitted to altering my parking location largely because I don't want to run into my neighbor. If I park in my driveway rather than in my usual spot in front of the house, I can duck in the side door and avoid his well meaning "So when are we getting published?" comments, which make me dig my fingernails into my hands.

The thing is, writing a book is not like other goals. Once the initial goal is reached, then there's the expectation of what to do next, and that expectation is almost always publication. Well, you've written the book, shouldn't the next step be to publish? What people don't realize is that the overwhelming majority of books that are written never do get published, at least not by traditional publishers. In order to give our books a fighting chance, those of us who know better try to push, prod and cajole our rough drafts into something that will sell. But even then, the odds are daunting, and even if we beat them, the process from acceptance to publication is often long.

I told a friend of mine how the agenting process worked and how some writers take years to find an agent, and then once a writer has an agent, that agent has to pitch to an editor, and so on and so on, and even once a publishing house has accepted the novel, it generally takes a year or two to come out in print. When I said all that, her eyes sort of glazed over and all she could say was "wow. I had no idea it took so long." And then she was silent. Nobody realizes that today's bestseller was bought a year or more ago, and may have been written years before that. It's a long process, and it's part of the reason that those of us who know feel an icy plummeting at the bottom of our stomachs when people ask that kind but uncomfortable question.

So when are we going to be able to read it?


And help me out here. What other questions should people not ask a writer? Any ideas? :)
Barbara Duffey said…
"When are you going to be in the New Yorker?"
Mylène said…
"How much money do you make?"
OMG, "When are you going to be in the New Yorker" ack ack ack! These are great! Or bad, depending on how you look at it.
Mylène said…
I no longer tell people (other than close friends who are writers, and only some family members) when I'm working on a book. I say I'm doing nothing at all. I'm training my dog. Lately I've taken to saying I'm retired.
Jeanna Thornton said…
My fave is: You gave up decorating and you're still not finished?

Kathryn, thank you for airing my laundry...:) Its feels fresher and lighter to bear! :) jink
Her Oinkness said…
"Are you going to be the next Jhumpa Lahiri?"

"Will I get a signed copy of your book?"

"Will I be in your book?"

"Is your book autobiographical?"

This is not a question but it's the worst:

"Soon, when you get rich and famous I can tell everyone I knew you."
Terrific post, Kathryn. I remember someone patting me on the hand eventually and saying, "Well you gave it you're best shot, dear. Time to move on."

That one lit a fire under me!

I can tell you, though, the conversation-killing questions keep coming after you've published:
1. So how many copies did you sell?
2. Think you'll hit the big leagues with the next one?
3. When are you going to write a *real* book? (I write mass market paperback genre fiction.)
4. So why hasn't Oprah had you on?
5. When's the next one coming? (This one starts within a month of any new release.)
6. You do all you own research for those sex scenes, do ya? (No. Just for the murder scenes, I always want to respond. I'd love to have you... for dinner.)

Guess you hit a nerve! LOL!
Suzan Harden said…
When are going to get a "real" job?

You gave up (fill in the blank) for this?
Suzan Harden said…
My personal favorite -

So why'd you waste your time/money/life going to law school if this is all you're going to do?
Wow, all of these resonate with me. The good thing about still having a day job (beyond the steady paycheck) is that at least I don't get any of the "why did you give up" types of questions. But I've heard most of the others. And Colleen, I'm not surprised that the questions don't stop after publication. It's almost like if you don't make it really big, people think the writing doesn't count. Maybe it's this competitive capitalist culture? I wonder if the same thing happens in Europe?
Ow, Suzan! That's a stinger!

Mylène said…
Oh, God, the Oprah thing. I was so relieved when she stopped making her book club picks.
Joy said…
Oh wow...You mean, I'm not the only person who's had to feild those questions??? ack ack ack!!!

When I first started my novel I was working on Saturdays in an gallery, and I had been inspired by a local artist who did a painting of some hills or mountains. So, I started bringing a notebook with me to work on it there b/c around 3 in the pm, it would get really quiet...usually. A frequent patron and sometimes gallery contractor came in often and started asking me what I was doing. I told him I was writing a novel (it started as a short story that kind of grew). He said what are you going to do when you finish it? I said, I don't know yet. He said, Don't you think you need a plan? I said, I PLAN to finish it...b/c if I don't it won't matter what I planned.

After that, people who asked me if I were working on "a paper" (b/c they thought I was in school) got the simple answer of "yes." Closer friends got the real answer!

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