Guest James King on
How to Talk to a Debut Novelist

Guest James King on
How to Talk to a Debut Novelist

[After a journey to publication that took over 30 years, James King finally saw his first novel, Bill Warrington’s Last Chance, on bookstore shelves in late August. It’s a proud, personal success and, in today’s guest post, he explains what a debut novelist appreciates most from family, friends, and (potential) readers.]

How to Talk to a Debut Novelist

First-time novelists tend to be a sensitive sort. Getting published is often a lifetime dream come true, realized after years of solitary work and spirit-sapping rejection. This is why, once the book has finally been accepted, published, and released, any event even remotely related to the recently published (if yet unrecognized) work of art tends to bring out some of our more subtle personality quirks. A good review, for example, will send us on a fist-pumping, chest-thumping, air-kiss-throwing dance around the house as we begin composing the Nobel acceptance speech in our heads. On the other hand, anything less than five stars may send us into a self-doubting, self-loathing funk from which we may never emerge without the help of supportive family, friends, and several gallons of Ben & Jerry’s Triple Chocolate Brownie Fudge Supreme.

God help you if you live with one of these volatile souls. But even talking with one can be a tricky proposition. In the spirit of greater understanding and personal safety, please allow me to offer the following tips on surviving a conversation with a debut novelist:

DO fawn. You know that commercial for an anti-flatulent where a young, bespeckled woman touches the wrist of the product spokeswoman and says, adoringly, “I love your work”? Go for that. And don’t stop when the first-time novelist pretends to humbly brush off your admiration. That dismissive wave is actually a signal for more. Word helper: insightful, delightful, compelling, unique, brilliant.

DON’T ask about Oprah. It’s not enough to finally get a book published? You have to remind the writer of the incredible odds against reaching Ultimate Oz? Sheesh. Besides, most writers hate to self-promote—it’s too close to begging. (Note to Ms. Winfrey: Please oh please oh please?! I promise not to jump up and down on your couch.)

DO ask about the writing life. This gives us the opportunity to don our proverbial smoking jackets, adjust our spectacles thoughtfully, and wax poetic on the creative impulse, the writing imperative, the muses, and other non-commercial topics only writers truly understand.

DON’T ask about sales. This is likely to be perceived as a thinly veiled attempt to find out how much money, if any, we’re making from the book. So don’t be surprised if the answer to this question is a question right back about your own financial situation: salary, earnings, investable assets, etc. (On second thought, probably not: You may actually be able to actually answer those questions, whereas most writers can’t.)

DO say you can’t wait to read the book if you haven’t yet done so. We know that you have a job, family, and other responsibilities. We’ll nod understandingly and express our hope that you enjoy the book.

DON’T say you haven’t had time to read the book. We’ll squint at you and wonder about your ability to get your priorities in order. No time to enrich your mind via deathless prose? Phooey.

DO express admiration over anyone’s ability to write a book. This demonstrates your understanding of the pain and suffering, not to mention draining self-absorption, it takes to get a novel published.

DON’T say you’re thinking of writing a book someday. To a writer, this is like saying to a doctor, “You know, I’ve been thinking of taking up brain surgery one of these days…” You may get a smile, but the explicative-deleted text in the thought-bubble over the writer’s head would make Richard Nixon blush.

So there you have it: quick and easy tips for survivng that next conversation with the world’s most fragile ego. But if you get stuck, just remember one of my favorite New Yorker magazine cartoons. It shows a frazzled writer handing a thick, just-finished manuscript to his apparently nervous wife. “Here it is, my novel,” he says. “I look forward to your compliments.”

* * * * *

Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away a copy of Richard Doetsch’s The Thieves of Darkness in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post, Richard Doetsch and The Thieves of Darkness. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is Wednesday, November 17, 2010 at 7:00 p.m. EST with the winners to be announced here in Thursday’s post. If you enter, please return Thursday to see if you’re a winner.

11 thoughts on “
Guest James King on
How to Talk to a Debut Novelist

  1. A delightful post, although I fear it won’t help. People are still going to tell us that they, too, WANT TO WRITE A NOVEL!

    Nice blog, as well!

  2. hah! so much fun! and mostly true.

    I love when someone tells me they always hoped to write a book and then tells me what the story is. Don’t you know an opportunity to sop PLOT off of people when you see it? 😉

  3. I love the Oprah reference. I wish I had a nickel for every time a friend told me to send a book to Oprah. Right. Like there isn’t a book pile the height of the Empire State building sitting on her desk right now. Great blog!

  4. LOL! This holds true for writers of any type of book. I get these same questions, and my published books are children’s picture books and nonfiction for adults.

    Another question that bugs me a little bit is “Where can I get your book?”

    Hmmm. Where do you normally get books?

    Thanks for a great article!

  5. Gae, I hate when strangers* tell me a story that they want me to write. I have plenty of my own ideas, thank you very much! You want the bread? Bake it yourself. 😛

    *Close friends and family are somewhat exempt from this. But only because I love them.

    Great tips, James. Now let’s hope people listen…

  6. James, Late to the party and to comment, since I just found this website via friend and fellow debut author, Therese Walsh. Great list of do’s and don’t’s. I’m thinking of having them put on the back of my business card. Thanks for sharing.

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