Friday, December 19, 2014

What to Do When Someone Questions Your Literary Choices

So, anecdotally, flipping someone off does not end a conversation as much as it exacerbates it. Most likely you will be considered the hostile agitator, especially if you are a writer not taking an “innocent” comment well.

When it comes to maintaining a confident demeanor, writers can often be put between a hard place and a rock. We all know what it is like to have someone question whether or not we really think we have what it takes, to suggest what we should really be writing, and to dig a fingernail right into our insecurity. But while the author is constantly questioned on every decision he makes, there also seems to be little in the way of his options without sounding like a colossal dick. Every explanation just offers more room for argument, trying to convey what’s important to you will often gets the return of, “That doesn’t matter.” When trying to answer something a tone of derision, writers will often feel themselves in a sticky spot.

What to do?

1) Evaluate the intention.

The appropriate response is very much determined by the speaker’s intention. In some cases, an offensive question is really just them trying to carry a conversation. And if the author just happens to be introverted, the speaker very well may be doing most of the hard work.

For small talk, people will take the little they know about you and try to form a question. It will probably not be that interesting, and if they don’t know that much about the topic, it’s likely to be the three-hundredth time you’ve heard it.

“Oh, I always wanted to write a book,” gets right under our skin. Like it was so easy. But if you sense that they’re speaking to fill the silence, sometimes it’s good to give them a break.

I can attest that when someone asks you, “So, what have you written?” it might be a competitive jibe. It also just might be a way for them to find out more about you.

While you only have a few seconds to decide, taking just a moment to give them the benefit of the doubt is often all you need to realize that they aren’t trying to be a condescending hole. If that’s the case, then you can answer their question confidently and thoroughly, which will allow them to come up with more detailed questions (versus continuing to question you.)

If you can’t tell why they’re asking, err on assuming the better of them. Even if they are egging you on, after you play stupid and act friendly, they either have to up the ante and be even more aggressive (making it more agreeable to outside viewers when you do eventually end up flipping them off) or, more likely, they’ll play along and act as though they weren’t being a jerk in the first place. (And then think you’re an unperceptive moron, but by this point, you were never going to get their blessing, so big deal.)

2) Don’t engage.

In a conversation, you don’t have to put any more effort into making them comfortable than they did you. Writers are often insecure about being a writer—“What gives me the right?”—and sometimes that makes us feel obligated to explain ourselves.

You don’t.

Explaining a decision validates a criticism. In certain situations, that’s fine. If it truly is constructive and an ensuing conversation can help the author understand the pros and cons of a choice, then having each person explain their view can be extremely helpful, even if they aren’t completely right. If, however, the criticism is more about someone else putting the writer down, the writer does not need to explain himself.

I work in highly competitive fields which, strangely enough, being competitive is ineffective and sometimes even counterproductive. While millions of people are trying to be writers, it is unlikely that the success of the person you’re speaking to will actually affect you. And yet, still we try to prove ourselves by belittling each other’s accomplishments.

Whenever you get the sense that someone is trying to prove that your choices are bad, or your experience doesn’t count (probably to build themselves up), the best solution is to answer them in the most succinct and literal manner possible, “literal” meaning exactly what they asked, not what they meant.

“Well, clearly this is a first draft.”


“Well, you haven’t finished it yet.”

“I have.”

“It’s your first book.”



“Why do you write science fiction?”

“I like it.”


“You sure you want to be an author. There’s no money in it you know.”

“I do know.”

And then stare at them, without saying a word, until they go away. No matter how long it takes.

When I’ve been in these situations (and I’ve been in them a lot) my succinct answers made my fellow conversationalist more and more flustered as we went on. By not feeling inclined to explain or prove myself or insult them, the power returned to me. They are under the obligation to keep adding details and to prove themselves right, not being fed any more information that they could argue or prove their point with. I don’t do anything that allows them to take offense and I don't allow them to get to me.

Of course, I was able to do this because I did have experience and could honestly give the “right” answer, but even if it had been my first novel, the answer, “Yep. It is,” would have still put the burden on her to keep carrying the conversation, and brevity lets her know just how I feel about the question.

Looking confident while someone is questioning your every action is difficult. Trying to prove yourself will often look like insecurity and give more fodder for criticism. By giving them little information and acting as though you don’t need to explain your actions often makes them seem reasonable and the person questioning them as the one who is being abnormal.

While the benefits of not engaging allow you to show you don’t find the question itself acceptable or necessary, maybe you don’t want to come off as annoyed. What then?

3) Make it a thoughtful conversation rather than an attack.

Whether or not a person is actually attacking you (or is aware that’s what they’re doing), if you feel attacked, there’s a reason. Maybe it’s you being too sensitive or maybe they really are just trying to bring you down. Sometimes it’s hard to say. But no matter the circumstance, many people want to bring the conversation to a positive light.

If they ask you to explain why you want to be an author, why you write in the genre you do, why your character did that “obviously ridiculous thing,” or just implied any of the above, sometimes the best way to handle the situation is to act as though the perceived slight does not exist and change topics.

“Why don’t you write contemporary fiction?” (Actual common question.)

A)     Instead of answering, ask a question that makes it about them: “Is that what you read?”
B)     Make it a bigger picture philosophy:  “I always find diversity in literature as important, so while I recognize contemporary fiction doesn’t alienate people as much as science fiction, it’s a niche that I enjoy and have no interest in disappearing.”
C)     Give an interesting anecdote: “A couple of years ago I was working on a play where I had a concept I loved, but no clear setting. I naturally made it about modern day America, and found I couldn’t get past page three. About a year later, I picked up the project again and picked out a more specific setting—one that I knew I would enjoy—and I wrote the whole thing in a couple of days. Turns out, contemporary fiction doesn’t interest me.”

So when someone asks why you want to be an author, tell them the story about when you first knew. When they inform you that it won’t make any money, ask them if that was a main factor in choosing their career. You can be as patronizing or as pleasant as you want. The important thing is to not give them room to suggest you are uncertain about that choice (even if you are).

4) Act like you really care about their opinion. (And try to really care.)

The best way to turn off hostility is to make that person feel respected. In the opposite vein of the above tactics, you may consider saying you aren’t sure about your choice and ask them their opinion, giving them the responsibility of making a “good” decision.

One of two things will happen: They’ll shut down, or they will go off, chattering endlessly. Either way, you’ve taken the responsibility to prove yourself off of your shoulders and put it back on theirs.

Some people have a lot to say when unsolicited, but then, the moment you ask them for their view, they refuse to give it. They’re good critics, but bad leaders. When criticizing, the responsibility is still on the creator, but when the limelight actually falls on the speaker, he can feel a lot of pressure to be right. That’s why everyone’s a critic and an aspiring author, rather than actually doing it. It’s easier to tell you why a choice is wrong than to make the right one.

The reason to use this method is because you actually aren’t sure about your decision, and you do want someone else’s insight. So if option number two occurs, then you’re getting exactly what you want. The trick is to just listen to them talk without putting your own two-cents in (which may encourage the hostility and competition to be revived.) Against my normal philosophy, it’s about making them do most of the talking, taking the information in, and then parsing it out later.

So, when they say, “He tells her he loves her and she just says nothing?” with that tone of derision we all love, just respond with, “What would you like to happen?” and they’ll either trail off about, “I don’t know, it’s your book…” or give you an in-depth analysis of their mind. Either way, win.

5) Passive-aggressively let them know why you hate that question.

I save this one for last because, while it is the most fun, it will make either make the speaker feel bad or get angry, so it should be your intent to do so. It should be saved for those who constantly barrage you with unsolicited criticism, and you merely want them to understand why it needs to stop without them defending themselves.

It goes like this:

“You should write romance novels. That’s where the real money is.”

“Ugh. People suggest that all the time. Don’t they realize they are insulting your personal tastes every time they ask you to write something you don’t write? I mean how closed minded can they be?”

Guaranteed they will never suggest that again. Also, that they may never talk to you again.

The real trick to confronting people’s derision is to assume you can’t change their mind. The less you try to do so, the more likely you will. Or at least, the less they’ll be willing to talk to you about it.