Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 36

by Laura Anne Gilman

It happens to everyone, the entire length of your career.  You’re asked by a complete stranger, or friend-of-a-friend,  “oh, what do you do?” and you say – with varying degrees of trepidation, “I’m a writer.”

If you’re lucky, they say “oh, cool, what do you write?” and you may have made a new reader, or at least encountered someone who thinks that books are Neat.  But the odds are high that you’re more likely to run into one of three types.

1.      Mr. Coulda Beena Contender.

2.     Ms. Areoua Bestselleryet

3.     Mr. Whydon’tchu

The  longer you’re in the game, the more you’ll develop strategies for dealing with these people.  But for those who’re just starting, or find themselves wound up unpleasantly by these encounters, here’s some advice.

Mr. Contender is an old and unbeloved friend.  This is the guy (male or female) who, on hearing that you write, says “oh, I always meant to…” or “maybe when I have time I’ll…”    Whether meaning to or not, the immediately dismiss your work as something that anyone (or at least THEY) can do.

There is only one way to respond to Coulda Beena.  Smile sweetly and say “of course.”  You know damn well that talking about writing has nothing whatsoever to do with actually writing, and having an idea is the easy part.  You went past, and DID.

Yes, you are allowed to feel a flush of annoyed superiority.  Just don’t let it show too obviously.  Likewise if he shows up with his cousin, Igotta Idea, who proposes a 60/40 split (with her keeping the 60%, natch) to have you write up her idea.  Tell her it’s a splendid idea, but you think she should do all the writing, and keep 100% of the profits.

Ms. Bestselleryet often means well, or at least has the defense of utter ignorance.  She only sees the bestsellers advertised, so of course everyone hits the list.  Because there are only a dozen or so people writing what you do, right?

You can explain to Areyoua, either ruefully or regretfully, about the realities of this industry.  But you need to accept, first, that odds are high that she doesn’t really want to understand.  Advances and royalties are odd even to people who are trying to break into the industry – the concept of sales and returns is too much for most people to care about.

If she does respond to the explanation, lead her gently to the gardens of understanding.  Show her the pleasures of figuring out our arcane systems, and bring her to a better understanding of how she too – as a buyer – is part of a healthy sales ecosystem.  But you might want to pack a lunch.

And then there’s Mr. Whydon’tchu.  Whereas Mr. Contender is simply clueless, and Ms. Bestselleryet is often merely uninformed, Mr. Whydon’tchu is that classic sitcom character – the busybody.  He knows – often without any experience himself – what you should do in order to become a MegaSuccess, and will tell you, earnestly and with the best of intentions, how you’re Doin’ It Wrong.

Sometimes, even people who should know better will turn into this person.  With the increase in opportunities for legitimate self-publication, everyone has an opinion.  However, they often don’t stop to think “has the person I’m expounding to thought of this already?  I mean, they’re smart people who may have actually done some research, first, and know how the market works…”

Odds are, Whydon’tchu won’t take a hint.  He’s out to prove what he knows, after all, and you need to acknowledge that.  So do so, as quickly as you can.  Don’t argue, don’t offer your own considerable experience… just nod and say thank you, and then turn back to your drink and your previous conversation.  Beat a retreat if need be: there’s no shame in being put to the rout in this instance.

Why do I tell you to turn the other cheek?  Because the thing that unites all three types, and their sub-types, is that they really – truly, honestly – don’t care. And that’s the thing that catches most of us on its hook: the idea that people will put their foot into our lives, tell us how this rather convoluted and messy business should work, without any actual experience themselves.  The arrogance of it is stunning, but arguing with them is pointless, and trying to educate them is, mostly, worse: they don’t want to hear it, and will not thank you for the effort.

They’ve said their bit and they’re gone.  Let them go.

Your blood pressure will thank you.


Coming up in Week 37:  The P Word that Starts Fights isn’t Politics, but Piracy…

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, including the upcoming urban fantasy TRICKS OF THE TRADE (12/11), and THE SHATTERED VINE, Book 3 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy (10/11).  Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, which SF Signal called “amazingly evocative….a potent ride through a changing future,” was published by Fairwood Press in June 2011.  For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)  And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.


About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at Learn more at, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.


Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 36 — 12 Comments

  1. Excellent advice, truly. Besides, all of these people might be potential readers, who now feel connected to you because they “know a writer,” and will tell others about your books, too. If you blow them off, they not only won’t be readers, but they’ll tell other people you’re a jerk and your books are crap (despite the fact that they haven’t read them) to save face.

  2. I once got a job on the strength of having explained–with bells, whistles, and disquisitions on the book business–to the guy who was hiring why it was unlikely that I’d leave him “when your book makes the NY Times list.” It gave him the (mistaken) notion that I understood business and economics.

  3. The one that makes me groan is the person who asks, “How much do you pay?” These days, that’s almost a fair question and no longer fun to tell them, “THEY pay me!” And you’re right, really they don’t care.

  4. My pet ones are Mr Wat Sthepointathat and his pal, Youra Wasta-Money. They both went to the University of Life and know everything about everything, especially about what is and is not their their tax money and attention. I get a lot of these two, in my historian mode, and the odd one in my writer mode. Because Women Should Know Their Place (the kitchen).

  5. Steven – really? I’ve found that “writer” gets the reaction of “someone who writes for a living” while “novelist” elicits the idea of “someone who sits all day in Starbucks talking about the book they’re writing.”

    This may be a NYC thing.

  6. I’m right there with you, Kari. ‘Oh you’re a writer? One of those dirty Bohemians wasting our tax money? Shut up and get some useful job!’ Composers, artists, psychologists, and most university professors get the same treatment.

    I can handle the well-meaning clueless masses but the Dark Depths of Youra Wasta-Money cannot be bridged.

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