The perils of telling strangers you're an author


I don't generally start conversations by telling people I'm a writer. This is partly because I'm also a lawyer and a rower, so I tend to find myself talking about lawyering and rowing to colleagues who share those interests. But it's mostly because (in my experience) introducing the subject to people I don't know well usually elicits one of two responses:

1. What sort of thing do you write? Oh, vampire romance? Like Twilight? 2. I've got a great idea for a novel. You can write it and I'll let you share the profits with me. I don't have much of a problem with (1) because it gives me an opportunity to explain how I feel my stories are different. It does get a little wearying to have to reiterate the difference between romance and erotica for the umpteenth time to (mostly) men who think I'm writing the next Fifty Shades, but that gives me the opportunity to crack filthy jokes, so it's all worth it in the end. However, uncharitable though it may be, (2) is starting to irritate me. I've had some ideas from friends in the past that have been pure gold (freely given, I might add) and I'd be absolutely lost without my test readers, but that's not what I'm talking about.

I think most vocational professions suffer a little from Dinner Party Syndrome. You know: you go to a party and someone asks you what you do for a living, you tell them you're a doctor and suddenly they want you to examine their fascinating skin condition. I've been asked for a lot of free advice as a lawyer over the years, but I suppose I hadn't really expected to be on the receiving end of DPS as an author because to me writing isn't a service industry, it's a creative imperative. Anyway, let me tell you a story about something that happened to me earlier this year to demonstrate the source of my irritation. A few months ago, I met a guy in a pub. Let's call him 'Jeff'. It was already very late (or early, depending on your perspective) and a goodly number beverages had been imbibed. We somehow got onto the subject of writing, and I admitted that I was an author. Jeff jumped on this like a kitten on a laser dot, swore me to secrecy and started telling me all about this 'amazing idea' he had for a science fiction novel that he wanted me to write for him. So, paraphrasing liberally to protect the confidentiality Jeff perceived to exist in his idea, let's say it was as follows: "If a cat sits on a Roomba, it won't always be in the same place because the Roomba will move around the house." For evidence thereof, I refer you to the YouTube video linked above.

This very simple premise took about half an hour for him to explain to me, slowly, as if I were feeble-minded. This did not endear him to me.

Nevertheless, I tried to be kind. I explained to Jeff, patiently, that what he had was a setting, or at best a concept. What he didn't have was a plot. He needed an actual story in order to make it into a novel. Something had to happen. "That's your job to work out," said he. "You're the writer." I declined, as graciously as possible. So Jeff, with a sulky expression ill-suited to a man approaching forty, says: "Yeah, whatever. You're just going to steal my idea and make millions off it." Now, leaving aside Jeff's fundamental misunderstanding of intellectual property law (after all, this is a writing blog and not a lawyering blog...), this riled me up. To be fair to Jeff, it was about 4am by this point and a frankly suicidal amount of alcohol had been consumed, but I still found this laughable. Firstly, his idea wasn't novel. It's been done, so many times. I'm still not going to tell you what it was, because I'm a woman of my word, but suffice it to say that Jeff has apparently never read a science fiction book or seen a science fiction film. It wasn't interesting, and I wasn't going to waste my time on something I didn't get excited about. Which brings me onto my second gripe: time. It takes hundreds and hundreds of hours of diligent thinking, planning, plotting, writing and editing to put even a crappy novel together. When you write like I do, crowbarring it into a life already busy with a demanding full-time job and time-intensive hobby, you really have to want to write the story you're telling. Nothing else is going to possess you to sit in front of a computer screen until 3am while your spouse is in bed. And a book isn't just one idea. You can't point to one idea in an entire novel and claim you're entitled to royalties because you thought of it first. A book is thousands of ideas, carefully woven into each other so that, when it's done well, your story flows effortlessly to the reader. But it's not effortless for the writer, I promise you that. And yes, a good author (or even a crappy author) might get rich off a good idea if he or she finds an audience by capturing the zeitgeist or the imagination of the readers, but not without putting in the hard hours to make it reality. It's around this point in my narrative that I should make a confession: sometimes I get a bit carried away on a night out and overdo the beers. It makes me even more argumentative than normal, but I like to think it's in the spirit of cheerful discourse rather than confrontation even if I do sometimes come off a bit fierce. Either way, starting a debate with me when I'm drinking is a good way to get a close look at my stubborn side. Or a closer look, anyway. So even though I was trying to be restrained about it, trying not to hurt his feelings by telling him his idea wasn't worth my time, Jeff found himself on the receiving end of my stubborn. Despite that, he still couldn't believe that I wasn't going to 'steal' it, so I suppose he had some of his own stubbornness to add into the mix. But actually, the more I think about it, the more I feel a bit sorry for Jeff. I'd had more drinks than I could count and I might not have been as gentle with him as my memory assures me I was. Either way, no one should have to deal with me in full-on, gin-fuelled advocacy mode in the early hours of the morning, with an incipient hangover and a pocketful of receipts portending overdraft charges on the morrow.

Now I'm feeling guilty and starting to wish that I hadn't decided to tell you this story.

Hmm. So, yeah. Sorry, Jeff.

But I'm still not going to write a novel for you.


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