Friday, July 29, 2011

What Do You Write?

I know I don't let her out very often, but I'm speaking to you today as Writer Sarah. As most of you know, I also write. By which I mean, sometimes I jot down a paragraph that could someday end up in a novel, and then let it sit for months without writing anything new because "free time" is a thing of myth and legend.

But, sometimes I write.

In New York, if you say you're working on "a novel," the response is not "Oh, how interesting. What's it about?!" It's more likely to be a subtle eye roll and a polite "oh" with the clear subtext: "Yeah, who isn't?" I appreciate this about New Yorkers. Nobody here is special, and many New Yorkers will think nothing of reminding you of that fact. It's one of the things non-New Yorkers think is "rude" about us, but it's actually quite refreshing.

New Yorkers in general might not care about what I'm working on, but when friends and family hear I'm writing a novel, they ask the inevitable "What do you write?" It's a harmless enough question, but I hate answering it. Mostly because this is what usually happens:

Q: What do you write?
A: Fiction.
Q: Yeah but what kind?
A: For teens.
Q: Is it a mystery? Scary? Romance?
A: No. Just fiction.
Q: That sounds boring. You should add vampires to it.
A: ::falls over and dies::

Or this happens:

Q: What do you write?
A: I'm working on a young adult novel right now.
Q: What like vampires?
A: No, like just regular fiction. But for teens.
Q: ::does not compute:: ::thinks I'm not a "serious writer"::

I feel the need to give my credentials when people give the "you write for teens?" look. It's mocking and ignorant and I'm always tempted to quote Shakespeare and rub my MFA diploma in their faces (if I knew where said diploma was). But I don't do that and instead just say to myself "Yep, YA. Oh you don't know understand what it is? You must be really stupid then." and merrily walk away. (I hope you other writers do the same. But seriously, only say it to yourself. Not out loud.)

Maybe my "non-specialness" of being a New Yorker has made me shy away from this question. Truthfully, I'm more concerned about coming off like a novice, even though that's exactly what I am. So, I'm curious what you real writers answer when asked "What do you write?" Do you downplay what you're working on out of modesty? Do you proudly offer your genre even if it's not taken seriously by the less-informed? Or do you just ignore people and keep typing?

Happy Writing this weekend :)


  1. Well, where I'm from it seems a huge accomplishment that I have finished a book (Even though I'm not pub'd). So, I have no problem talking about. I write YA, currently a Fairytale sequel to Sleeping Beauty (based in NY, ha!) and I talk about it like it's my baby.

  2. I cringe at the question to. Because saying 'contempoary fiction' gets a similar reaction to what you just described. I've only had one person ask me "it's not about vampires, is it?" but it was a new boss at a new job in front of an entire room of new co-workers.

    So now, unless I know they're interested, I just mutter something about 'a little bit of fantasy and other stuff' and try and move on.

  3. I'm from L.A., where everyone is working on a screenplay, so I seem serious and important because I'm working on a novel - jk ;)

  4. I also wince and try to hide in a corner whenever this gets asked. My response usually goes something like, "I write YA. It's books for teens." and they'll say something along the lines of, "Oh, like Harry Potter or Twilight!"

    And then I run away, because I do write SF/F and those conversations usually end even more poorly.

  5. I've not been published (my first novel is a wip) but I write every day, so I guess I'm a "real writer". Unfortunately, I'm in Los Angeles where everyone is pretty self-absorbed, so nobody ever asks me what I write. I have to wait for them to stop talking so I can tell them. I say I'm writing a modern-day romance, and there are ropes involved. They look at me for a moment and go back to talking about themselves. :)

  6. Ugh. I don't like to talk about my writing. It just makes me feel awkward. It's silly, really, but it was a big enough step for me to just start TELLING people I wrote fiction.

    If anyone asks, I just keep it vague: audience, genre, and possibly a comparison to something else. For example: "It's a YA retelling of Ta Midsummer Night's Dream. Kind of similar in tone to Ten Things I Hate About You."

    And if they ask for details, I try to change the subject. (Yes, I'm a weirdo.)

  7. When talking to non-writers, I do shy away from my genre sometimes because I get the eye-roll when I say "paranormal" (currently a clairvoyant mc). I guess the way you answer people depends on what kind of YA novels you right. Are they lighthearted or dark? A simple enough answer is I write novels focused on the struggles of modern teens. (maybe?)

  8. It's a weird situation for me. I'm a reporter, so people read my dull-as-dirt story about volume and content debates at the waste treatment plant, and then they won't bat an eye when I say I'm a writer.

    But on the rare occurrences when I tell people I'm working on a novel, most of them stare at me like I'm some new breed of wide-mouthed fish. It's the strangest thing.

    It's to the point where I don't offer anything more than a laugh and something along the lines of "Oh, you know, I write a little of everything." It's harmless and it (mostly) answers their question.

  9. Oy. It's like you pulled this post right out of my noggin.

    I got tired of having to explain what "YA" means to the non-writer people in my life, so I have a standard response of, "I write novels for teenagers in the real world facing real problems."

    I usually get a look of "that's really noble of you" when I say that, like I'm a social worker or something. Which isn't ideal, but it's better than having someone toss me a sarcastic vampire comment or respond with silent confusion.

    And quoting Shakespeare? Win. I actually just added this to my WIP a couple days ago:

    "That was totally lame," I say.

    "What I said or what you said?"

    "Both of us. Next thing you know we'll be quoting Shakespeare."

    "Now go we in content." He waves me off with a twirl of his fingers.

    "To liberty, and not to banishment." I hate myself for playing along. Hate myself even more for knowing the next line.

    Have an awesome weekend, Sarah! And wear your YA Writer badge with pride. :D

  10. In all seriousness, I've found a way to disarm the question. When a person asks me what I write, or what I'm working on, I look at them and say, "I'm writing a book about you."


    "Yup. I'm taking notes as we speak."

    This usually ends the conversation.

  11. "So you're a writer" always sounds more like, "so you're delusional." (And I don't even live in NY) I tell people it's a hobby that makes me happy and change the subject.

  12. Hmmm... I've found most people don't ask a lot of questions. Instead, they start talking about how they've always wanted to write and how they wish they had the time, motivation, ideas to do the same thing. Pretty standard response.

  13. I sputter awkwardly and then finally produce a quiet, "Um, its Young Adult. It's about this girl...." And then I die inside.

  14. I hate answering that question, too. Most people are perfectly polite when I tell them I'm writing YA, but you can kind of see their brain working and going, "So... books for teenagers. Why not GOOD books?"

    I'm also wary of letting non-writers (or at least non-YA writers) read my stuff, because I inevitably get someone saying, "Woah, this is dark. You're not a dark person! Where is this coming from?" Like I have to qualify the fact that my writing often deals with darker themes by telling them there's something secretly wrong with me.

  15. I usually get, "What's your book about?"

    I have my pat two line answer of, "It's about two sixteen-year-old boys, one the bully, one the victim, and they end up in the same psych ward, in the same room."

    I then get the raised eyebrowed, "Wow," followed by a split second of awkward silence.

    I smile and nod.

    I'm always quietly blown away that people even ask me.

    And to respond to you, dear Sarah, I am proud to say I write contemporary YA. In the future, if anyone ever gives me so much as an eye roll I will address it on the spot : ) *raises fist and shouts LONG LIVE YA!*

  16. What is this "Free Time" you speak of? Does not compute. DOES NOT COMPUTE!

    When people ask about my writing and what I want to write, I usually say books and leave it at that. On the rare time that I mention that I've started working on a novel or some such and they ask what it's about, I usually give a vague answer of "Oh, you know....look! Something shiny!" and then wander away.


  17. When people ask, I tell them that I write historical fiction for teenagers. I've gotten a wide range of reactions, but the best, I think, is the time I was at a job interview and my prospective boss actually said "cha-ching!" Insert awkward don't-know-how-to-respond-to-that laugh here.

    Needless to say, I did not get that job.

  18. After many years of writing and having books published, I’ve finally developed a way of answering that question. I try to answer by explaining my books’ stories in an interesting, genuine way – not the genre, but what the stories are about, in ways I might describe a TV show or movie ... I’d try to make those descriptions interesting to add to conversation, so why wouldn’t I try to do the same for my books? I’m prepared, though, to have people not be interested and, if they’re not interested, that’s fine. Since using that approach, I find a lot of people are actually interested in hearing about my books and short stories, maybe because there’s no pressure for them to like my story ideas. Sometimes I talk about the Kindle or changes in the publishing world as well, and people often find the information so fascinating, they volunteer to check out my books online.

  19. I never talk about what I'm working on. I only talk about my published work.

  20. Try scaring them: "I grab young people's minds and start smashing glass. They had to create a new genre just for me - Splatter-tween.

    Or, just say yes: "Does it have vampires?" Yes. "Is it like Harry Potter?" Yes.

    Or, just talk in circles like telephone/cable companies do: "It's YA." what is that? "It's a genre." what kind of genre? "It's a sub-genre of a sub-genre that is now mainstream - check it out!"

    Actually, you just need to learn how to lie better for the sake of everyone involved. You live in New York, New York lord knows this should be automatic easy. ; }

  21. What do you write? "Oh, shopping lists, directions to places I have to go, you know all kinds of stuff."

  22. I give people the most information possible so there's a long pause while they're processing my answer, allowing me to slyly change the subject -- something you're allowed to do if the pause is long enough.

    Usually I say, "It's fiction, it's about a girl that turns into a genie, kind of like I Dream of Jeannie but less 60s than that. I try to buck the gender roles."

    They reply, "Oh, that's nice."

    And then there's the pause. Probably they're processing the fact that I'm a feminist revisionist.

  23. K M Walton - YES. You tell the whole concept and you get the pause. It's wonderful.

  24. Meh. Yeah. My problem is that if I say that I write and people ask "what?" (cause I'm no New Yorker, as much as I'd like to be), I don't really have an answer. Everything? Nothing? Some day?

    Yeah. It should come with a job description.

  25. I write about my life. Stranger than any fiction. Funnier than any comedy...

  26. First I cringe. Around here everyone wants to know, not only WHAT I write, but, "Can I read it?" Uh...NO! I typically tell people that I write YA, or books for teens. I explain my stories are reality based with magical or fantasy elements. Some ask me if there is a map or vampires. Uh...NO! If the person says something to belittle YA, I say, "I work with teens. I don't get why people think they're dumb. They are often way more observant and willing to speak up than adults. At least I did. Didn't you? I mean, before we got older and jaded. I like that teens aren't. It's refreshing." They tend to double blink at that response.

  27. If someone asks me what I write, I like to deadpan, "A war between teenage vampires and zombies in a post-apocalyptic future."

    Then when their eyes are nice and wide, I gently laugh to let them know I'm joking.

    This quickly clues them in that it would be silly of them to think I would write about any of the above. =)

  28. Usually I say "fiction, as in novels." If they don't just smile and nod at that, satisfied since they were just being polite by asking and want a more detailed answer, I tell them I write about ghosts.

  29. I write 20th century historical fiction in series and family saga form, some of it geared towards teens and mature preteens. I also have some soft sci-fi/futuristic fiction with YA-aged protagonists.

  30. I think of what I write in terms of why I write. This might have something to do with why I haven't achieved "published novelist" status yet, but it's the way projects have meaning for me. If I classify my find before I've carved it out of my imagination, it's not fun anymore. So, the why is usually to find some meaning in the chaotic world around me. If I'm lucky, I find some humor in there too. Sometimes the meaning and humor make the painful stuff easier to take; sometimes, they only make it more acute.

    A lot of people still look down on YA, but a lot of people also look down on romance, mystery, sci-fi, horror, or anything that makes it onto the bestseller list without winning a prize (or at least being a runner-up, or being the true story of someone wealthy overcoming "adversity.")

    Whatever you're writing is the most important story because it's yours.

  31. Oh, I loved this and I also love the New Yorker frame of mind. I never EVER tell anyone I'm "working on a novel." There is such an air of pretension and la-tee-da in "working on a novel." I don't even say it to myself. I think it cheapens the grit published authors have had to go through in order to have their novels it shelves.

    At the college I attend, a lot of Creative Writing majors like to update their facebooks with "132 pages into my new novel" and then my teeth grind and I almost comment with "THAT'S A MANUSCRIPT NOT A NOVEL AND MANUSCRIPTS ARE MEASURED IN WORD COUNT NOT PAGE NUMBERS."

    When someone is at home working on a long piece of writing, that's a manuscript. You can call it a novel or a book after you go through query hell, submission hell and every other layer of hell that one must surpass in order to get from typing the standard manuscript header to fawning over the printed thing in a bookstore.

  32. I always try to proudly explain what my writing is about to anyone who cares enough to ask. A professor of mine (from ages past) once told me before presenting my work, that "If you are not proud of your work, why should I be? Or anyone for that matter?" When I genuinely explain what I am working on, I find that I get enthusiastic responses pretty much 100% of the time. Now, whether or not they are genuine, that's simply something I may never know.