Tis the Season [for awkward conversations at Holiday Parties]

Holiday parties can be a mixed bag, especially for writers. Yet, tis the season. You can reference a previous post called Crafting Your Writer Lie…I mean, Life for a few other insights on approaching conversations about being a writer. This one [hopefully?] has a few additionally useful tidbits. Just in time for the holidays.

Because writers come from all different walks of life and have vastly different knowledge bases, there can be an awkward moment when we’re put on the spot to talk about our chosen field. This might occur when speaking to another writer, someone who knows a writer, anyone who is skeptical of writers, or just someone who happened to ask what we do for a living.

There will always be people who don’t entirely grasp that writing is as much a labor of love as it can be a calling. It’s good to keep in mind that not all of us are meant to be writing apologists. Writing is a worthy profession, regardless of whether it will ever be your career or what pays the bills. If and when you encounter someone who only really accepts justifications in terms of money, don’t worry if you need to change the topic – you’re not failing yourself or anyone else by doing so.

Aside from the skeptics, the other sorts of people who ask about what it mans to be a writer are those who view it as a form of almost-sexy rebellion from the normal droll of adult life. They imagine writers bucking trends while caught in a push-pull of their creativity. This is largely because of how writers are portrayed as characters in cinema – the messy, impulsive, overly emotive or sensitive, introverted, always-on-the-lookout-for-inspiration type. In this sort of conversation the person almost wants you to lie to them about how the process works, because by admitting that writing is 90% not getting distracted by the internet, you’d shatter their image of how exciting it must be to be a writer. Proceed with caution, but don’t feel like you need to romanticize what it means to be a writer just to fit in with their preconceived ideas.

As a rule, don’t disparage anyone who has a different opinion than you do – you never know when you might be frightening off a future reader. It’s also good to keep in mind that most people don’t want to admit how little they are reading – this could be due to a lack of time, interest, or something else altogether. Whatever the reason, be aware that those who give a bit of a funny answer regarding “What kinds of books do you like to read?” or some variation of the question will likely be uncomfortable continuing to talk to you if you expound too much on the awesomeness of books and writing. Nobody likes feeling as though they are somehow lesser to the person they are having a conversation with.

To flip that idea in the script: Personally, I’ve always disliked needing to admit I don’t know what someone is talking about. This is especially true when it comes to my fields of interest. With that in mind, we won’t get too much into the academics here, but below is a list intended to be overview of terms that might come up in conversation. It should help keep you from being the one to admit to ignorance when someone is bold enough, or curious enough, to ask questions about what it’s like to be a writer.

You might be surprised (or not) but many people – especially readers – are not aware of the many variations in both approach and goals of self-published writers. Some of the more common questions I’ve been asked over the years have to do with explaining the hopes and dreams a self-published writer is pursuing when they opt out of seeking the assistance and experience of the traditional publishing industry – or, worse, fielding questions based around the idea that self-publishing is only something failed writers do. Skepticism surrounds the idea of self-published books primarily because of the fact that any person can upload a collection of words and put a cover and a price tag on it. I think it’s fair to say that self-publishing and self-publishers have gone through some growing pains, and that the PR is getting better but isn’t all the way there yet. Just remember, there are bad self-published books out there, and if someone has encountered one, it will likely impair their ability to be neutral, let alone accepting, of the idea that self-publishing can be a worthy endeavor.

With traditionally published books, there are definitely a few eye-sores that come out every year. (If you’re in a bit of a saucier crowd, it might be humorous to reference the bad sex-writing in fiction awards that the Literary Review holds every year. https://literaryreview.co.uk/bad-sex-in-fiction-award ) Some people will happily discuss the flaws that they noticed in their recently read books, just be prepared that they usually are the ones who ask things like ‘what good are editors’ and ‘don’t they cost a lot of money’, ‘my sister/cousin/grandmother writes better’, etc.

This post isn’t equipped to help you identify which sort of person you’re conversing with, but I have no doubt the more you talk about being a writer with other people, the more you’ll be able to accurately tell what kind of responses both feel the most comfortable and will serve you best. In the meanwhile, the [abbreviated] list below is all about ways to make it sound as though you’ve done your homework, so you can impress or intimidate as needed. Pro-tip: knowing some fancy parlance can sometimes help us feel more confident in a conversation. I aimed to include just enough snazzy terms to throw around that whoever you’re talking to might well just smile and nod before changing the subject as quick as they can. Which, honestly, is a great way to take the pressure off so you can get back to enjoying the party.

Terms to consider for conversation, and some things I’ve been asked over the years:

  • Author vs Writer – what’s the difference? | This one can be tricky, but it’s worth some thinking about so you don’t get surprised by it. There’s not really a right or wrong answer, so just make sure you’re comfortable with the answer you give.
  • Agents | People who will help you sell the various rights that are part of creating a work of writing. This largely concerns distribution rights and the ability for a company (usually a publisher) to make money from selling your creation.
  • Editors | The people with the job of cleaning up writing and checking it over for clarity, substance, and cohesion. More succinctly, editors assist in making a version of a writer’s work to be better than if the writer had worked on it alone.
  • Traditional Publishing aka Publishing aka Legacy Publishing aka Big Publishing aka The Big Five | Refers to Macmillan, Simon and Schuster, Penguin Random House, Hachette, and HarperCollins. June 2013 was when Penguin and Random House merged together, turning it from the Big Six to the Big Five. Also encompasses all of their imprints (which are far too many to name).
  • Independent Publishing aka Self Publishing aka Indie Publishing | Authors who do not publish through a publishing company. There are various specifics to this sort of publishing, but the most important ones have to do with an author choosing to do all the jobs of a publisher (or hiring people to do them) so they can retain control of the rights (see, copyright) to their creations.
  • Hybrid Author | A writer who pursues both methods of publication, indie and traditional.
  • Copyright | The particular sets of laws that govern the intellectual property of writing. Copyright applies to a work as a whole, and although it can be officially registered, there is a non-registered version that anyone who writes something down gets as protection for their creations. (See my post on copyright for more details.)
  • Royalties | Money earned from the sale of a book, either digital or print. They are paid monthly, quarterly, or semi-annually in most circumstances.
  • POD aka Print on Demand | A higher cost method of producing a print copy of a book, but with the advantage of being able to order a small amount at a time. Costs vary depending on what company used to print the book, but usually range between 5-10$ for an average, black&white printed novel.
  • Protagonist, sometimes hero or main character | The person who we follow the most closely in a book.
  • Antagonist, sometimes villain | The person who works to make the protagonist fail.

There’s far too many terms for this to be anywhere near a complete list, but I did my best to include ones that are likely to come up in casual conversation. (If anyone would like to request additionally terms, just leave a comment!)

To round things out with one final bit of advice from experience : Showing off your knowledge can be useful to establish yourself as a thoughtful, forward thinking, reality-grounded person. It can also be taken too far, and again, no one likes feeling as though they’re less than the person they’re talking to – remember, that goes for both you and the people you converse with! Most important of all, even if you start don’t the path of showcasing your knowledge, don’t try to sound more knowledgeable than you are. Talking about the number of sales a book has to make before they can be called a bestseller is only a good topic if you actually know the information. To that end, if something comes up that you truly don’t know or aren’t certain about, it’s always safe to say, “You know, that’s a good question. I’ll have to look that up when I get home.”

Have fun and stay warm! As always, thanks for reading.

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