Monday, 29 June 2009


Other authors, when upset, curl up in a little ball and try to be only slightly prickly - baby hedgehogesque, you might say. I, on the other hand, prefer the full porcupine-after-stubbing-its-toe-on-a-hot-coal method, shooting my spines all over the place. Crabbit, that's me. But all of us tend to get prickly/spiky about the same things. So, for the benefit of the non-authors amongst you, and to prevent painful mistakes by our nearest and dearest, here is a handy list of Things Not to Say to Authors - Especially Children's Authors - (because we need to be mega-prickly, being so little and weak and Not Important ...)

In no particular order (with the politest replies I can muster in brackets):
  1. "I've always wanted to write a book but I don't have time." (Get up an hour earlier, lazy-bones - I did. At even 1000 words a day - 3 pages of A4 - you'd be done in a couple of months. Simple, time-wise.)
  2. "Everyone's got a book in them." (Best place for it.)
  3. "I liked your last book better" / "This is better than your last book." (Could you possibly rephrase? I suggest: "I loved *******" / "This is brilliant.")
  4. "How are sales doing?" (I'll tell you how sales are doing when you tell me how much you earn. Besides, do you know what would be "good" sales? So, if I say I sold 1000 copies in three months, have you any idea whether this is good or bad? So don't ask. Pretty please.)
  5. "I was in Auchtermuchty and didn't see it in the bookshop." (Ah, that'll be because they sold ALL their copies just before you came in.)
  6. "Where do you get your ideas?" (I can't tell you - it's like being in the Magic Circle. No seriously, a much more interesting question would be: "What happens when you get an idea? Like, do you stop whatever you're doing and write it down? Or do you mull it over for weeks? Start writing straightaway? How do the characters grow? In your head or on paper?" Those questions, about process, are interesting to authors.)
  7. "Ooh, that sounds fab - I'll buy it secondhand." (Don't worry - I'm sure my bank manager will understand.)
  8. "Are you going to write an adult book?" (No, I'm not nearly clever enough .... Arggghhhh, please don't ever ask this without arming yourself with anti-porcupine gear. Actually, if you must know, I am going to write an adult book, when I feel like it, but meanwhile, while my brain is still at its peak, I'm writing for teenagers. We are very, very prickly about this, often unnecessarily so, but it always feels as though people think writing for children/teenagers is easier than writing for adults. So, if you want to ask the question, find a very sensitive way of phrasing it. Otherwise you chip away at our pathetic fragile egos.)
  9. "I haven't seen it reviewed in the papers." (Oh, and how many papers do you read every day? Do any of the papers you read have any reviews of children's/teenage books? If so, how many? And did you know that there are 10,000 children's books published in the UK every year?
  10. "Oh, are you the new JK Rowling?" (Considering I don't write fantasy or books in a series, probably not. Anyway, fame and fortune are the tawdry trappings of success and I am above such things.)
Look, I know I'm a crabbit old bat but we're sensitive souls, we writers, doing a really hard job and exposing ourselves (not in that sense, thank goodness) to public criticism. We're often bad at accepting praise and too quick to see the negative. Thing is, the one thing that many of those questions seem to say to us is, "Well, you're not doing as well as you'd like, are you?" (No, I'm not, but I'm trying, trying really hard.) "And besides, what you're doing is not that clever or difficult or important." I happen to think it is.

This wasn't really meant to be a whinge. We love you all, you lovely, lovely readers, really. And we certainly need you. But our skin is very thin and sometimes it's our closest friends who quite accidentally say the wrong things. So, I just thought it might help if I told you what those wrong things were.

Just sayin', as "they" say.


catdownunder said...

Miaou! Love these. My answer to people who ask the first question
has always been "and how much television do you watch each day?" May I borrow your answer occasionally?

Stroppy Author said...

and don't forget 'I/my nephew/granny/husband/friend/' has written a story. Could you take a look at it and tell me/them how to get it published. My children love it....etc'. Any smart replies to that one? I just say 'no - because it will always end in tears.' If the story is bad, they don't like to hear it. If the story is good, they don't like to hear that you will not act as their free agent and adviser.

How about we get some author's t-shirts printed up with all the answers to these questions on them and start wearing them to parties?

Keren David said...

It's the JK Rowling one that gets me every time. I must have heard it a hundred times, and I'm not even published until January. It's quite a subtle put-down - is your book going to sell by the bucketload and make you a fortune? Well if not you're a failure. I tend to grind my teeth and thank goodness they've never heard of Stephenie Meyer.

Anonymous said...

What a coincidence! I love you authors, too. I can tell already that we'll get on.

Except, you just never know when something really bad is going to emerge as I speak, without intending to, meaning well, and so on.

I have already met/read authors who ought to be the next JKR. Something's not right. Even if ten of you shared her success you'd be well enough off that I could ask for a loan.

adele geras said...

Good on you, Crabbit Old Bat! The t shirt idea is a good one. I've had every single one of those. I like the look on people's faces, at various events when they're told I've published nearly a hundred books and they haven't heard of a single one of them. You can see the thought cross their collective minds and they stare at you as though you're some sort of fraud. I also get very annoyed that my LOCAL Waterstone's has never, not in 32 years, had a shelf label for me!! I have even sunk so low as to ask for one at times and still no joy. I now sulk quietly to myself....oh, the childishness to which one sinks!

Brian Keaney said...

How about, 'Don't you ever miss having a proper job?'

Gillian Philip said...

Keren, I saw you getting the JKR remark on Facebook the other day! I winced.

I am very crabbit about these questions too. I've been told 'I've always known I have a book in me'. That was at an RAF yummy mummy evening and I'd had three glasses too many and I said 'Well, you do have to sit on your a*** and write it'. I have never been invited back. But the corker was the Christmas card I got this year congratulating me on my publications and saying 'What a lovely hobby for you!' There's a reason Christmas cards are sent from a distance, I suppose.

Nick Green said...

"At even 1000 words a day..."

Now you've got my porcupine quills quivering (or rather, my cat fur bristling). If I do 1000 on any day, I count that a very good, nay exceptional day. Sigh, I'm so un-prolific. Hssssssssss.

Stroppy Author said...

It depends what you're writing! 1,000 a day on some books is not much; on a picture book I might write 10 and cross out 9 of them and still count the day a success :-)

Bill Kirton said...

Then there's the wonderfully existential 'Should I have heard of you?' question. To be answered with a shy smile and a promise to oneself to make that person the first victim in the next book.

Maggie Kingsley said...

I've had all of the above said to me at one time or another apart from the JK Rowling one, but if you think you've got it bad as an author of teenage and children's books try being - as I am - a Mills & Boon author. Here are a few 'gems' from my collection:-
'You know, you write so well I'm surprised you haven't tried writing a 'proper' book yet.' (Well one day I might write 'a longer' book, but I imagine it will be every bit as improper as the books I write now.)
'Of course M&B authors are all given their plots by their editors, aren't they?' (No, sorry you're wrong. Head Office actually has a team of trained chimpanzees who do that)
'Don't you ever feel embarrassed about having to admit you write for M&B?' (Oh, constantly. In fact, I always make sure I'm wearing my balaclava when I go into my bank to deposit my royalty cheques.)
and my all time favourite
'We couldn't get the writer we really wanted to come to talk to our group so we thought we'd ask you even though you don't write the kind of books any of our group is interested in, or would read.' (I've never found a satisfactory reply to that one so generally simply smile sweetly, and say, 'So sorry but I'm grouting the bathroom that weekend.)

Keren David said...

Gillian, yes indeed, JK Rowling remark on FB, by email, on the phone, at family gatherings, work, parties, lunches, dinner parties and several times at my daughter's Batmitzvah. And each time from a nice person who thinks they are so original.
No doubt once my book is published it'll be 'Are you selling as many as JKR yet?' or 'Did you think about writing something know...magical? Something a bit like JK Rowling. She's very successful isn't she?'

Gillian Philip said...

Oh! how about that old favourite 'Do you only write when you feel like it?' Absolutely, and my agent and my editor are really happy with that - just like your boss, I suppose.

PS Russell T Davies tells taxi drivers he gets his ideas from the Ideas Shop in Abergavenny.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Quite cheered up my day! Have had variations on all of these! As well as the 'hobby' one. My artist husband gets that one all the time - he even got it when he was manifestly carving solid blocks of wood for eight hours a day. Or at shows people would watch him doing some incredibly complicated bit of carving for a few minutes and then say 'I'm a joiner too.' One woman stood and surveyed him carving a rocking horse head fixed into a vice, surrounded by carved wooden horses and asked him conversationally, 'who makes the horses then?' He was quite tempted to say that he imported them all in kit form from China but thought that she might have taken him seriously.
As a writer, my other pet hate is 'are you still writing?' implying, as it does, that it is a wee hobby you can take up or leave at will - and also that nobody has heard or read anything by or about you for years. I'm now getting a second wave of patronising remarks from younger people 'Oh, you've had a story published? Well, that'll be good exposure for you, won't it?'
I'm off to grit my teeth and carry on writing!

Katherine Langrish said...

Thanks Nicola - this was brilliant. To see my own take on it (on this blog), see 'Questions, Questions', Feb 17th...
And Bill, to 'Should I have heard of you?' I have evolved the reply, 'It depends how much children's fiction you read.' Usually they haven't read any, so they shut up.

Nicola Morgan said...

btw - thanks all for not pointing out the typos! I have been - still am - on the road and this mini netbook is seriously rubbish. I spotted the typos but then couldn't get on line to change them - and now I think what the hell ... Living dangerously.

Bill - "should I have heard of you?" arghhhhhhh!!!

And all your other suggestions - I guess we've all heard thm all, haven't we?? Mills and Boon - yes, I can imagine the irritation there too. Katherine, so sorry if I missed you post in Feb. Will do and look now.

Must go - got a little kids' book to promote ...

Anne Rooney said...

'Should I have heard of you?' - I also say 'it depends how many children's books you read' or, if I think they are a more objectionable person, 'it depends whether you take an interest in the books your children read'. Of course, practically no one does. They might know their child likes spy stories, or does/doesn't like Harry Potter, but that's usually as far as it goes.

Linda Strachan said...

Great Post Nicola.

Yes, I've had all those, too, as well as one 'friend' who asked me 'Are you still writing those little books then?' Patronising or what!

Another actually thought it would be an idea to suggest I get someone else to write my book for me! 'Why would you want to spend all that time writing it?'
I'm still trying to get my head around that one!

Nicky said...

I am ridiculously irritated by the implication that I'm too incompetent to write a real ie adult book. I have to say I think other writers are some of the worst offenders there and I have never found an appropriate response.

Leslie Wilson said...

If people ask me if they should have heard of me, I say yes!! Because of course they should, but in any case, they just have.. but I'm so glad people ask other authors how sales are, it seems to be what everyone wants to know as soon as a book comes out, and how are we meant to know?
It is my conviction that there is a manual issued to the general public with those questions in it, but it is never, never given out to authors.

Anonymous said...

I never know how to answer this question from children:
"Are you famous?"
(also, 'Are you rich?' and 'Do you have a fast car?')
And I get 'Where do you get your ideas from?' all the time from children and I'm sure they only ask it because some adult has suggested it because left to themselves children ask much more interesting questions. Like one girl asked 'Do children like the book because of the cover or because of the writing?' and I thought, wow, what an intelligent question, and I wish I knew the answer! (I said 'Well, what makes YOU like a book?' and she said 'Mmm... the writing.' so I said 'Well, it's probably because of the writing then.')

Sally Nicholls said...

I got my favourite ever question from a child on Tuesday.
"Where's your bodyguard?"

Mary Hoffman said...

What gets me steaming is the "How long does it take to write a book?" question, whether from children or adults. I say "How long does it take to read a book?" and the questioner looks at me as if I were barking and replies "It depends how long the book is." Why do they never think of that before they ask how long it takes to write one? Grrr!

Why don't we have a new post in which writers suggest what they'd LIKE to have said to them, instead of all the above? Or their favourite questions and rematrks, like Sally's.

John Brindley said...

I like ALL questions, because that means someone's interested. The JKR thing though, that usually comes at you like some kind of comment, or vague criticism, rather than a question. On schools visits, I have been faced with silence or a sea of raised hands with all types of questions at the ready - and I know which one I'd prefer!

John Brindley said...

Oops, forgot to add my ID to last comment.