Five Things You Ought To Know About Writers


The other day, a student came in to my library and looked at me quizzically. “You wrote a book?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, smiling.
“You don’t look like a writer,” she said.
“What does a writer look like?” I asked.
“They wear glasses, and they pull their hair back in a knot, and they stare at everyone. Creepy.”

I don’t know how many writers this child has seen before, but her description made me wonder about how nonwriting people see us. I know most of our readers here are writers themselves, but I thought it might be fun to explain some of the traits nonwriters should know about us.

1. We’re watching.
Characters in the most successful stories move and talk and behave in a believable way. So sure, we’re watching you. We’re looking at the way you walk, and the clothes you chose this morning and what’s in your cup. We’re interested in what kind of car you drive, your favorite color and whether you wanted to be a cowboy or an astronaut when you were a kid. We’re not trying to stalk you, really. Don’t run away. We’re just trying to get it all right.
2. We’re listening.
Not long ago I was sitting in a Starbucks waiting on a friend to arrive, and I couldn’t help overhearing a conversation between a young woman who was writing a novel, and the young man who was coaching her. She was starry-eyed, he was pretentious and together they were practically a comedy team. Not that they knew it. I kept my face deadpan and my head down, but I heard almost every word. It’s a great way to learn how to write dialogue, after all. Hearing the give and take, the breaths and pauses that happen in between, is vital. And sometimes I hear a sentence that’s so individual, so perfect, I rush to scribble it in my notebook, in case one of my characters might say something like that. If you’re ever reading along and you run across a familiar turn of phrase, don’t be surprised to find that a writer was listening to you.
3. We’re not talking about you.
With all that listening and watching, you might worry that our characters are based on real people…maybe even you yourself. Most likely not. With all the listening and watching we do, we still prefer to create our own characters. Just because the protag in the novel has brown hair and drives a Santa Fe doesn’t make her me. So relax…your soul isn’t stolen, nor is your secret identity revealed.
4. We occasionally wander in another world.
Sometimes in the middle of a conversation, the writer will seem to drift away. We don’t mean to be rude. We can’t help it – something pinged a thought, and sent us wandering into the world of our imagination. Writers become skillful at pretending to know what they missed in a real-life conversation, because we do this so often. It’s easier face to face than on the phone though…as my best friend and my sister could tell you. I’ve done it to them more than once, and felt terrible about it.
5. We’re not vampires.
Most of us have day jobs to pay the bills, and have to do our writing at night or on weekends. Time is a premium. I have to plan my time carefully, to make sure I’m not throwing it all away. Sometimes friends will call on the spur of the moment and invite me to some great event, and I have to turn them down because I’d already planned to spend the day with the keyboard. I’d love to go out to the mall or have tea, but if it’s between that and getting the writing done, the writing takes precedence. That’s just how it has to work. Do you want the next book or not?

Anyone want to add to the list?


13 comments to Five Things You Ought To Know About Writers

  • Yes! Hurry up with that next Kestral book!!!!

  • “We’re not vampires.”

    Speak for yourself….

    I think #4 is key, and I’d add that we’re constantly writing in our heads. At least I am. Everything I see, hear, taste, or experience in any other way is grist for the creative mill. And I always find myself searching for the right words to describe whatever it is I’m living at that moment.

  • OMG, this is so perfect! I’m going to blog about your blog. I do the *drift away* of number four all the time.

    And David as a vamp. Too cool! (mental pic, David, in a kilt, showing fangs, holding a Blackberry and a glass of single malt. Clan MacCohen, right?)

  • She was starry-eyed, he was pretentious and together they were practically a comedy team.

    *laughs out loud*

    Ted (my husband) always knows when, when we’re brainstorming, he’s hit on a particularly good idea, because I do that drift thing. I stop talking and go slack jawed and stare into the distance and then he’s invariably pleased with himself. 🙂

    Damn, though, now David’s done eleven tips and you’ve done five things and I feel like I should have a numerical value to add on Thursday! 🙂

  • I have one.

    Yes, I do consider this a job. Yes I work very hard at it. Just like you, my job consumes 8+ hours a day…and I look after a child too. I have about as much time as anyone else in the working world to do other things.

    Sometimes people seem to have this attitude like I should have all the time in the world to clean or do yard work or do major home projects or go outside all day with my daughter (though that one’s easier now that I have a laptop) or any of a multitude of other things that other people expect of me. I mean, all I do is write, right? That’s not a job!

    Just because I’m not making any money off of it right now that does not mean it’s not work. The money will come, but I have to actually finish it first! And it has to be quality as well, thus the time spent.

    Sometimes I just get this vibe that certain folks I know, some family members, occasional acquaintances, etc, don’t see my career choice as actual work.

  • Wow. If that’s what writers look like, I must be a desperate housewife.

  • Daniel, I know exactly what you’re talking about. When my book came out, a family member asked me what I planned to do “now that this writing thing is out of your system.”

    Catie, it happened to me at the beach this summer, while I was out in the water riding waves. My husband said something that spawned an idea, and away I went, happily writing in my head…until a wave hit me and I woke up to a mouth and nose full of salt water. *laugh*

  • “Sometimes in the middle of a conversation, the writer will seem to drift away.” LOL Our poor friends and spouses. It is getting easier to agree, but that may be that I’m getting better at shutting off the back-brain. At least during conversations. Lately, there’s been lots of dreamy stares at the coffee shop and library.

    @Catie. To keep in line with the others yours needs to be a prime number. LOL

  • That’s Clan MacGoldberg, Lassie! And don’t you forget it!

  • 6. Whenever a writer appears to be deep in thought, nine times out of ten he’s lost his car.

    7. A bad dinner has inspired more novels than any other cause.

    8. If not for editing Shakespeare would still be a hack.

    9. Writing is 10% inspiration, 20% perspiration, and 70% pruning the deadwood.

    10. A writer is not just somebody who puts his thoughts down on paper, a writer is somebody who cleans up and organizes those thoughts and puts them in a form the reader can actually make sense of.

    11. An academic writes to impress. A writer writes to inform.

    12. All writers contradict themselves.

    13. All writers start a novel for some inconsequential reason, then come up with a deep reason halfway through the first book tour.

  • Oh my goodness! I’m so guilty of no. 4. All the time! Ask my poor husband. I can be working on a story and he’ll walk in and I’ll give him this glazed look. He’ll ask a question and then I’ll just nod. Then, when my brain comes back to this planet, I explain I was writing and it takes me a while to come back from the world I created to this one (I like it so much better there…). He understands, though, and for that I’m eternally grateful!


  • Deb Smythe

    I do the zone-out thing when I drive. Get in the car, start thinking about a scene… Blink. Whoa! I’m where already? Talk about auto-pilot. Pretty scary. Oh, and I’ve got a 5+ hour drive to the boyfriend’s every other weekend. So, yeah, if you see me steer clear.

  • MO

    I’ve come up with two questions. They are related to item 4. That ‘drifting away’ in the middle of conversation item makes me ask, IF that is the reason I try to write because when I try to talk, my family dsconnects. Or is it that I am such an intersting speaker I give them ideas and they are all writers deep down in their souls? Whatever! I write because I need to put it somewhere. I enjoyed your article.