14 Questions People Ask Writers

Nancy J. Cohen

As a writer, you might encounter the following questions during the course of your career. Preparing answers ahead of time will prevent you from becoming tongue-tied when hit with one of these verbal arrows. If you feel left out, don’t worry. Once you get published, these people will jump out of the woodwork.

1. At Thanksgiving dinner, your cousin comes up to you, leans forward and speaks in a conspiratorial tone. “I have this great idea for a story. Would you be interested in working with me on it?” Before he launches into a lengthy and convoluted plotline, give this response: “I have more ideas than I can write, thank you, but I know another author who acts as a ghostwriter. He charges $10,000 per book. Shall I put him in touch with you?”

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2. “I have a friend who’s written a book, and she needs someone to edit it. She’s desperate for help. Can I give her your phone number?” Let this person know that your services, if available, are not free. You would require a fee, a contract, and a waiver of liability. Or suggest she gain feedback by joining a critique group or entering a writing contest with score sheets. Another alternative is for her to hire a professional freelance editor, but you still have to make clear it’s a long road ahead. See Question Number 8.

3. You are in the doctor’s office, and he asks your line of work. “Really?” the doctor says after you reply that you’re a writer. “What do you write?”
“I write mystery novels.”
“Are they, you know, published?”
“Yes, I’ve written over twenty books. You can buy them online.”
“That’s impressive. I’ve been thinking about writing a book. How do you get published?”
“You join a professional writing organization, attend meetings and workshops, go to writing conferences, and learn the business aspects of the career along with the craft. I’d love to talk more about it. How about if we exchange an hour of my time for an hour of yours?”

4. “How are your books doing?” is another question you might get from friends and family. Here’s your answer: “They’re doing great, thank you. Have you bought a copy yet?”
Another writer once told me she’d like to say her books had failed, she had entered bankruptcy proceedings, and did anyone want to help her out with some cash?

5. “Where do you get your ideas?” is a common question at book talks. Well, I pull them out of thin air, don’t you? You’d think this one would be a no-brainer, but it’s a question that genuinely baffles people. Ideas are all around. It’s having time to write these stories that’s difficult.

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6. “Are you making money at it?” I’d really like to reply, “No, I’m starving, and I need a loan.” Many people think published authors are rich and famous. “I guess you earn a good living, right?” is another variation. Some folks will come right out and say, “So how much do you get for each book?” That’s like asking your doctor, “So how much do you make on each patient?” I have a standard response: “I write because I love to tell stories. My advice to new writers: Don’t quit your day job.”

7. “I want to write a book, but I don’t have time to learn the ropes. Can I pay you to write it for me?” See answer to Number One. Add a bit on the publishing biz and how writers are expected to spend time promoting their novel. Even if someone else writes the book for them and it sells, are they willing to put the time into marketing?

8. “Can you recommend a book doctor?” My answer: “If you’re serious about becoming a writer, you’ll learn how to edit your own work. All careers require practice and training, and writing books is no different. The only magic bullet is persistence. But you can hire a freelance editor to help you in the right direction. This still won’t guarantee a sale. Plus, publishers expect more books than one work. You’ll need to start on book number two right away, and be prepared to do your own marketing.”

9. “Can I find your book in the library?” Librarians order books, so we want patrons to request them. But this question could be a good opportunity to launch into an explanation about the sources of distribution and the different formats for books today. You could counter with, “Do you like to read your books in print or on ebook?” And even if the person gets your book at the library, encourage him to write an online customer review.

10. “Where can I find an agent?” Hello, anyone hear of the Guide to Literary Agents? The AAR site online? Attending professional conferences? Entering writing contests? Let this person know about local writers organizations, classes, and seminars. They need to do their homework. And no, I am not going to introduce them to my agent.

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11. “Is your book on the bestseller list?” This one is easy to answer: “Not yet, but if you buy a copy and tell all your friends about it, that will help me get there.”

12. “Have you been on any talk shows?” The line is blurred here between the concept of an Author and a Celebrity. Becoming a published author may take years of learning, rejections, submissions, and rewrites. Celebrity equates to stardom. Serious writers work at the craft because they love to write. They know it is not an easy road to follow, and they’re willing to put in the effort, suffer the indignities, and keep going regardless of whether fame or fortune come their way.Your answer: Repeat the one from Number 11.

13. “I’ve never heard of you. Are your books in the bookstore?” Again, this is a good opportunity to mention the various platforms for distribution.

14. “Any chance of getting your book made into a movie?” Realistic answer: “Unfortunately, it’s not up to the author. The publisher may [or may not, depending on your circumstances] own the film rights. An agent might be approached by a studio or interested party who pays a fee to option the book. But even then, that might go nowhere. So the chances are slim for most authors.”

Many of your answers will be individual based on your preferences. Consider every encounter an opportunity to educate the public about the publishing industry and what they, as readers, can do to help authors.

What we write comes from the heart. It’s our personal expression, not ideas we pluck from someone else’s consciousness or can teach in a quick lesson. Each person’s journey is his own. We get where we are through hard work, grit, a thick skin, and persistence.Yes, we can offer tips and point wannabe writers in the right direction, but they have to be prepared to do the work. And they have to love telling stories.

So how would you answer some of these questions above?

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50 thoughts on “14 Questions People Ask Writers

  1. Variation on #13. This is the most frequent one I get. Somebody asks, “What do you do?”

    “I’m a writer.”

    “Really? What do you write?”

    “Thrillers, mostly.”

    “Oh wow. Have I heard of you?”

    Giving them my name always results in glassy eyes and a sheepish mumble of some sort. So now I fish out a card and hand it to them and say, “You have now.”

  2. Depending on the circumstances:

    “Where do you get your ideas?”
    “I subscribe to the Great Idea of the Month Club.”

    “Have I heard of your books?”
    “Name all the books you’ve heard of–I’ll stop you when you get to mine.”

  3. I’m nodding my head! It seems like I’ve been hit with all of these questions at one time or another. And they are annoying, but I guess we just need to smile. The one I do get most often is the statement, “I have a great story for you to write.”

  4. I have been a ghostwriter, and you will never find anyone for $10,000. Try over $100,000.
    I wrote one book, HOW TO WRITE YOUR MEMOIRS that is a step by step guide, and I mention this to those who have a story to tell. It helps a lot in handling people with these questions.

    • Good to know, Johnny, although the $10,000 usually gets them when I mention it. And how handy that you can refer wannabe writers to you book. I can do that now with my cozy mystery text.

  5. Wow. It appears that the general reading public is far more forthright than I imagined. [only published shorts so far, but I’m looking ahead.]

    I came to read this because I’m going to an acquaintance’s book launch this month and wanted to ask something intelligent that hasn’t been asked a million times before, but I’ve accidentally learned a heck of a lot more.

    Thank you.

  6. I get a lot of those “Are you published?” or “Are you making money?” I suppose if all I wanted to do was make money, I could just write the next crappy Twilight ripoff. But that’s not my goal. =P

    I think the most annoying statement about writing is “I’ve always wanted to write a novel, but I never have time.” YOU need to make time for writing. Time isn’t going to magically fall into your lap. We’re not going to add an extra two hours to our 24 hour days so you can get some writing done.

    I suppose that one bothers me because they act like writing is really easy and anyone can do it. Experience has told me otherwise.

    • That’s for sure. Lots of folks are looking for the magic bullet to writing a book. Or they think I’ll introduce them to my agent and they’ll be on the road to success. Why do only writers get these kinds of questions?

    • Ha ha, yeah! People don’t go around asking lawyers “How do get your first case?” or telling doctors “Oh, I’ve always wanted to practice brain surgery, but I never have time.”

  7. I had a friend (well, actually he was my husband’s friend) who asked me the same question every time he saw me:

    “So, when you gonna get a real job?”

    He thought this was hilarious.

    I would answer all the questions exactly as you said, Nancy. 🙂

    • Oh yeah, that’s another question, but fortunately one I haven’t really faced. Most laypersons don’t understand how hard we work. This IS a real job, and we don’t get a break because we work at home.

  8. People are constantly asking me for signed copies of my books.
    My reply: I don’t keep extra copies, but if you’d like to buy one I’d be glad to sign it.

    • Good answer. Yes, that’s another one–people expect you to hand out free copies. My response to this is that I have to buy them myself plus pay shipping, so I only use these books for promotion like contest prizes. And, this is a business. What other business is expected to give out their products for free?

  9. The one I always get is, “have you written anything I might of heard of?” Fortunately I can always mention that I wrote Nancy Drews under contract, and that gets the conversation going. Better than mentioning one of my other titles, and getting a blank stare! 😉

  10. Great list, Nancy! And it gave me a few chuckles, too, which is always a bonus! I especially appreciate your clear, detailed answer in #8. Well said.

    I get a variation on these questions from people asking me to “look over” their short story or their first chapter, with no mention of compensation for my time or expertise. I just refer them to my website and tell them to check the Services page.

    • Oh, yes. Another one! “Will you take a look at my chapter…book…story?” I just got one today, an unsolicited email. “I’ve written a book and I’m hoping you can review it.” What, do I sit around waiting for people to dump their stories in my lap? At least you have a Services page. That is a good place to send them.

  11. Oh my gosh! These questions and comments hit the nail on the head. So true. One of my favorites is when someone comes up to me tells me they love my book so far. Trying to spark a dialogue I ask where they are in the plot and they give me a page number. From my perplexed look on my face they respond, “Well you wrote the book, don’t you know what you wrote on page such and such?” LOL!!!

  12. These comments and questions are so right on! I’ve gotten so many of them. I, too, get tired and annoyed by the comment “I could write a book if I only had the time.” When my first book was published, people came out of the woodwork with #1–total strangers who contacted me on social media with ideas they felt were perfect for me to write up for them. They would say, “I don’t have the time to write this, but you write it and we can share the proceeds, 50/50.” It’s so odd that people think this is OK. I used to offer to read people’s proposals (I write cookbooks)–but that was a minefield of craziness, so I no longer do that. 🙂

  13. My first book just released, so I haven’t encountered many of these questions yet. I’ve heard that if someone asks how much money you make as a writer, you should ask right back, “Well, how much do YOU make?” But if someone did ask, I’d probably just smile and say, “Tens of dollars a year.”

  14. Great list of questions and even better list of answers. When asked “Where do you get your ideas?” I like to answer, “I subscribe to ideas.com.” I’ve actually had a couple of people check online and complain when the site wasn’t what they expected.

    When I was practicing medicine, people would generally ask me for medical advice. Now they want publishing tips. It never changes, does it?

  15. Oh, you’re up for medical advice? Hey, lemme see, I have this ache…Seriously, I’ll bet those people rushed online to find ideas.com. I might try that one.

  16. I used to introduce my self as an IT guy who writes on the side. In the past year I’ve switched it around to “I’m a writer.” then mention the IT job only if they inquire further.

    When they note that: “Well obviously you haven’t made enough at your books to quit your day job.”

    I reply with: “Actually the day job is more research for my books. Working for the government is a great way to legally stalk people and get ideas about the most creative ways to ruin them and destroy lives all with the benefit of a regular paycheck.”

    Some people get the strangest look in their eyes after that response.

  17. Nancy,

    You’ve got some great answers which are a lot more thought out than my usual knee-jerk responses.

    I sometimes get this comment/question. You’re a writer? Are your books any good?

    I usually want to reply – no. they give national writing awards to just anybody..

    See snarky is how I usually roll.

    Thank goodness I have you to soften my replies!

  18. I carry a bunch of cards; I tell people they can read my novel for free on my blog, new scene every Tuesday – and point to the blog address and the name of the book (Pride’s Children) on the card. I mention there are free short stories, and they can try out my writing for themselves.

    This is a good answer to a lot of the questions.

    It is good to be prepared to direct inquiring potential readers to my work. When I publish (in a couple of months), I will have that information on my blog, and a new website for the book, but the card is an easy take-away.

    • Yes, always carry business cards and bookmarks/postcards if you have them. You never know when the opportunity will arise to talk about your books. Certainly you can hand them to those questioners above.

  19. This was more of a statement than a question. While in my doctor’s office the doctor said, “Must be nice to make up stories for a living and not really have to work.” I wanted to deck him right there in the exam room. Instead, I replied, “There’s a little more to it than that. I bet I work longer hours than you do most days.” *cue tight smile*

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