We’ve all been there. You’re sipping eggnog and listening to your aunt bragging about your baby cousin’s latest football victory. You’re wrapping gifts with your sisters. Gathering to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve. And just when you think you’ve made it through the holidays unscathed, someone turns and asks the five most terrifying words in the English language:
“So, how’s the writing going?”
Okay. So maybe those aren’t the most terrifying words ever, but they are words that can make a writer freeze. It’s like that moment in Return of the King when the Sauron spotlight zeroes in on Frodo, and he just collapses. Talking about writing can be scary! Or–worse–awkward. It can help to have an answer–and an escape plan–ready. Here’s a few ways to avoid looking like a reindeer in headlights.
1) Think About It. No, Really.
How is the book (or story, or collection) going? Is it ‘going’ at all? Have you been stuck on the same page for two weeks? Have you not written in two weeks because hello? Holidays! Did you just have a breakthrough that requires a complete re-write? Did you just finish a complete re-write but the only “progress” you really have to show for it is 5,000 less words? Writing can be very difficult to explain to people. “Progress” may look like spinning your wheels to non-writers. So take a look at your year. Check up with yourself. Make a list. Now, you’ve got something to work with.
2) Prepare an Answer.
Even if that answer is just, “I don’t want to talk about it,” it’s good to know, ahead of time, what you’ll say if the conversation turns to writing. Writers are understandably shy about this. We’re introverts. We’re insecure. We’re worried that we’ll say too much, or bore people. But the truth is, generally, friends and family sincerely want to know what’s going on. The problem is they can also get lost in the minutiae. Their eyes start to glaze over if a writer then gives a rambling speech about how, oh, she added a dog, then took the dog out because the dog was too humorous for her story, but then she put the dog back in to humanize the protagonist, at which point her Beta reader suggested turning the dog into a cat and all the sudden the international banking thriller has become a cozy mystery. And no it’s not finished and you may not read it. I’m bored, and I just wrote that! Think of it like a query. You’re summing up your story. And in life as in pitching, conciseness is key.
3) Prepare a Pitch.
The question, “How is the writing going?” is almost inevitably followed by, “What is your book about?” Cue reindeer-in-headlights. Or long, rambling answer. Glazed over eyes. And . . . you’re back to wishing you were in the writing cave. I find it helpful to always have a few ready answers to this question, depending on the person asking it. An agent or editor would get a very different answer than my great aunt Shirley. For holidays, I like to have a short, conversational answer that invites but doesn’t require further explanation. For example, if I were writing The Lord of the Rings, I wouldn’t give the history of middle earth or even try to explain what hobbits are. I’d just say, “I’m writing an epic fantasy, where nine characters go on a quest. I’m having a lot of fun with the world-building.” Another great way to go about this is offering some comp titles. “I’m writing a YA that’s kind of like Lost for teenagers.” If the person asking is interested in more detail about the plot, they can ask, but if they’re just being polite, the answer doesn’t trap them (or me!) in a long, awkward conversation. We can start talking about Lost instead. The Sauron spotlight has moved on.
4) Talk About Other Books.
This is a great answer if the writing is going terribly. Or, if you just don’t want to talk about it. Spin the question around! Instead of talking about your book, talk about other books. What are you reading? What’s selling? And, if you’re like me and don’t really like being the center of attention, turn the question back on the questioner. What are they reading?
5) Talk (And Think!) About Your Goals.
Here at DIY MFA, we’re big on New Year’s Resolutions. In fact, in just a few weeks, we’ll be posting our own here. Setting goals is a great way to jump-start your writing. It’s also a great answer to the “How’s the writing going?” question. When you’re prepping that answer, think about your goals as well. Instead of “OH MY GOSH I WILL BE WRITING THIS BOOK FOREVER,” try, “Well, I’m on draft number four, and really zeroing in on the heart of my main character. I’ve learned a lot. And I’m hoping to finish the fifth draft by May and send it to readers.” It’s an answer that invites more questions, but can also serve to turn the conversation away, if that, too, is your goal.
Bess Cozby writes epic stories in expansive worlds from her tiny apartment in New York City. By day, she’s an Editor at Tor Books, and Web Editor for DIY MFA. Her work is represented by Brooks Sherman of the Bent Agency. Tweet her at @besscozby, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit her website at www.besscozby.com.