As I read “Don’t Ask Me What I’m Writing” in the Sunday New York Times, I thought, “That is the worst question anyone can ask a writer.”
The question was, How is your novel going?
When someone asks me that question, I have the panicky feeling I used to get when I took a test and realized I didn’t study hard enough for it.
Slouka was writing specifically of what happens when a friend asks their writer this question within the first few months.
The novel is a new-born babe, a primitive and undeveloped idea in the writer’s mind. A well-intentioned friend might ask them, “How is the novel going?”
As Slouka points out this question is a double-edged sword that cuts both writer and well-meaning friend.
But no matter what the progress of the book, you can’t win with that kind of question. I’ve been asked that question many, many times, and I’ve never figured out how to answer it.
As I read this article, I realized what the problem is: people are asking the wrong question.
What’s wrong with this question? Slouka explains that it opens up your writer to criticism at a point in the process when they’re really vulnerable. For the most part I agree with this.
When a writer hears this, s/he suddenly senses the pressures of the outside world. People expect things of you when you’re writing a book, and so many have already tried and failed before.
Here are 5 ways to talk to your writer about their book:
Ask them what they want to write about. A writer friend once asked me what my book was about. When I tried to answer, I fumbled my way through an awkward plot summary. But when she asked me what I wanted to write about, I answered without missing a beat. Summarizing the plot line was difficult, especially because I have to use words like “kingdom” and “goddess” and “tribe.” But when I tell people that I want to write about otherization and how people live in fear of what they don’t understand, I have the spark that made me start writing it in the first place. Asking your writer this question will give them a chance to talk about what inspired them to start.
Speak in technical terms. Ask your writer how far along they are or what they’re working on. They might say, “I’ve written the first two chapters and they seem okay,” or “I’m stuck on the part where he breaks out of prison,” or maybe something like, “Christ, my protagonist is a real jerkface.” Rather than talk about the book, it’s much easier to talk about the process.
Ask them how they make time to write. Let me first put this out there. Your writer is a procrastinator. There is never going to be enough time to write, and when they do write, being alone with their creativity will terrify them. Your writer also has to contend with full-time jobs and a basic human desire for a social life. Unless they’re up before dawn or up all night, a couple hours a day is pretty damn good for most writers. But when you ask them how they find the time to write, you’re connecting with something that your writer struggles with. This will help you connect with your writer.
For the love of God, don’t judge, criticize, or offer suggestions. Even if your intentions are good. Your writer won’t hear it that way. Trust me, they just won’t, because there is a voice inside the mind of every writer that tells them they aren’t good enough. This voice never shuts up. Slouka calls it the “inner critic.” And when you judge, criticize, or offer suggestions it only empowers that voice and renders your writer impotent. So just listen and empthazie and understand, and that is enough.
Ask how you can support them. Another way to phrase it would be, what do you need? Your writer might ask you to hold them accountable by getting chapters done by a certain deadline. Or they might ask to talk through some confusing plot points. If you truly want to show support for your writer, this is the best question to ask them. Nothing will put them more at ease than seeing how their needs can be met.
With these questions not only will you support your writer, but you’ll be their best ally.