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The Questions Writers Get Asked
by Shirley Kennett

Being a published author can be a harrowing experience, and I'm not talking about the hazard of brain freeze with a deadline looming. It's those questions that come flying at you (think Death by a Thousand Cuts), some of them draining creativity that should be spent on writing.

Take that innocent opener, "Where do you get your ideas?" A real discussion on this topic is possible if the questioner has a couple of hours and is willing to buy me a drink. Most of the time, it's the same as saying, "How are you?" when you meet a neighbor in the supermarket. You don't really want to know the details of the neighbor's bout with jock itch or that her psychologist is urging her to make eye contact as the first step in conquering sociopathic behavior.

When asked the question about ideas, I choose from three responses, depending upon what the questioner will be most comfortable hearing. "Comfortable" means something that will confirm his already-held knowledge or suspicion.
1."I draw upon my most meaningful life experiences, my painful childhood memories, and the dark side we all possess."

2."I read the police blotters and Metro Digests in sixteen major newspapers."

3."I don't know. Just lucky, I guess."
Another common question: "What's the best way to get an agent?" A serious answer would begin by determining whether the manuscript is finished and in correct format, polished, and long enough to be considered a novel. If there's time, I'll ask those questions, and more. If not, I use one of the following answers.
1."Write a great query letter, put in the time to research agents who handle your type novel, and be persistent."

2. "Ask a writer who his agent is, then write to that agent and say you were recommended by one of his clients. Start with that writer over there (pointing). He's very accommodating."

3."I don't know. Get lucky, I guess."
Another common question, "What's your book about?", triggers ambivalent feelings. On one hand, it's a reminder of the chasm between my current position as a writer and the position of being a Household Name. If I was a Household Name, the person would know what my book's about from the media coverage, or be too embarrassed to admit he didn't. Either way, he wouldn't be asking that question.

On the other hand, it's an opportunity to pick up a new reader. One new reader, suitably impressed, might tell five friends, and so on, and so on. The way I see it, standing in front of me is a crowd of potential readers represented by a spokesperson. Out of such crowds, buzz emerges. Shall I give a rehearsed, concise, pitch? A modest summary? A ten minute detailed synopsis? I go for the concise pitch. Pull the string, out it pops. What are some of the things I hear in return?
1."Oh, I don't read that kind of book."

2."Hasn't someone else already written that, someone famous?"

3."I don't get it."
Rounding out the quartet of most commonly asked questions is a tough one to deal with: "How much money do you make?" My first inclination is to tell the person it's none of his business, and in cases of simple curiosity I do say that, with varying degrees of politeness. But many people have a genuine interest because they want to know how to support a family while beginning a writing career. If my antennae detect this type of questioner, I say that it's a good idea to keep your day job until you can live off royalties alone (not advances that can be fickle and widely-spaced).

"Okay, but how much money do you make?"

Since my first volley wasn't enough of a deterrent, I say that a large majority of first-time advances are under $10,000. I'm hinting ominously that I could be talking about way under, and it's the author's job to work up from there. Their seven-figures-bubbles burst, questioners drift away.

Now we're down to questions and situations, both good and bad, that don't fit into neat categories. Here are some of mine.

An attendee at Of Dark and Stormy Nights, a writers' conference, had been making brief eye contact with me all day. She was carrying a tote bag, and sticking out the top of it was a brown envelope. I had a fair idea what it was: a manuscript. I kept an eye on her, but she never approached. On one of several trips to the ladies' room that day (due to the coffee, tea, and bottled water I drank whenever my mouth wasn't busy yakking), that thick, brown envelope came sliding under my stall door. The slider made a quick exit, even though I called out for her to wait. I admit I had very negative thoughts, such as using the pages of the manuscript to supplement the roll of paper that only had a couple of squares left on it.

I'd been outfoxed. My tote bag was now laden with this burden and search as I might, I couldn't find her the rest of the day. In my hotel room, I pitched it in the trash. Later I dug it out and found 350 pages and a hand-written note with an email address only. I read the first ten pages and found it to be, well, not ready for submission. I sent an email with a few suggestions, ending with encouraging her to join a critique group. Should I have been harsher? I don't know. I do know I lugged those 350 pages home with me-to recycle.

At Bouchercon in Monterey, I got onto an elevator with a man who was wearing the convention badge. He introduced himself, said he was a fan, and asked if I would sign his underwear. I've signed books, hands, postcards, bookmarks (including some that weren't mine), program books, quilts, and tee shirts, but never underwear. I gave him an alarmed look, but my eyes really bugged out when he began unfastening his belt buckle. He seemed serious, not your basic elevator pervert, so we made a compromise that kept his zipper up. I pulled out and signed the elastic band of his briefs at the middle of his back. It is the one and only time I have given a fan a wedgie. Fortunately the whole transaction was completed by the time the elevator doors opened to a waiting crowd in the lobby. It would have been hard to explain. Still is.

Not all situations are harmless, if you consider the elevator incident harmless. I received an envelope in the mail with the return address of a prison. In a rambling letter, a prisoner serving a life sentence for murder told me how much he enjoyed my books, which were in the prison library. (An odd choice, but I'll take my sales as they come.) He said he had plenty of ideas about how to kill people, and wanted to act as my consultant. I didn't respond, and when the next letter came, I marked it "refused" and sent it back unopened. He didn't write after that.

I drove almost three hours through a thunderstorm to get to a bookstore in a college town in Iowa. It was a Thursday night during the school year and all the other stores on the street were closed. The store owner assured me the two dozen chairs she'd arranged for my reading would be filled. Homemade cookies rested on doilies, and the scent of freshly-brewed coffee filled the small shop. The designated time came and went. Traffic on the street was sparse, my car being the only one parked within view of the store. About an hour into the session, when the owner and I were competing for apologizing for the zero turnout, a man came in, his overly-large raincoat dripping. His clothing was layered and well-worn, and I wondered if he was homeless and had come in to get out of the rain. He sat in the center seat in the front row and looked at me expectantly. So I read, to an audience of one. Afterward we pulled our chairs closer to talk. For an hour there was more than a plate of cookies between a reader and me-there was an almost magical connection based in the love of mysteries and the love of words. I drove home with the storm still raging, a miserable time of low visibility and fingers clenched on the steering wheel. It didn't even occur to me until I got home that he hadn't bought a book. I rate it as one of the most successful signings I've had, not in terms of sales or promotion, but in what writing's all about.

A woman once came up to me at a signing to tell me in a voice I'm sure could be heard better than the public address system throughout the store that I'd better take myself to Glamour Photo before my next cover photo because "you don't look like a writer, and you need a lot of help, honey." She didn't buy a book, and I didn't take her advice. I have also been advised that my protagonist needs to get married, dump her love interest, lose weight, dye her hair, get a life, sue her ex, start being a better mother, stop being a bitch, and/or get laid.

I went to Bouchercon in St. Paul when my first book had been out about a week. I was on the elevator-really, I don't spend all my time at conventions on the elevator; occasionally I visit the ladies' room-when two women got on, each carrying my book. They were discussing it in glowing terms. I stood there, frozen, unable to even croak "Hey, that's my book!" even though I was screaming it mentally.

One moment like that makes up for all the times I've had to scramble for an answer or trot out a worn one. Now if I could only think of something to do about that brain freeze problem!