(From the mailbox of Miss B. Manners, etiquette specialist.)
Dear Miss Manners,
I often find myself tongue-tied when talking to writers. If I meet a writer, what is the most polite way to proceed?
This is a very common problem, Gentle Reader, so don't be confused or embarrassed.
First off, let's look at a normal, polite conversation, such as one would have with any other kind of professional. It would go something like this:
YOU: So what do you do, if you don't mind my asking?
OTHER PERSON: I'm an engineer.
YOU: Oh, really? What kind of engineer?
OTHER PERSON: I'm an electrical engineer. I work over at [name of business.]
YOU: That's very interesting/challenging/impressive. Do you enjoy it?
And so on and so forth.
However, it is very important when dealing with writers NOT to talk to them like you would people with normal jobs. Writers are strange, exotic creatures who live lives totally different from you or anyone you know.
So here are some helpful etiquette tips, sure to impress any writer you meet.
1. Always mention money as soon as possible. Ask how much they make, or make jokes about starving artists. Give helpful hints on how to make MORE money, preferably using your favorite bestseller as an example. For instance:
YOU: What do you do?
WRITER: I write children's and young adult books.
YOU: Did you know you can make a lot of money doing that? Just write the next Harry Potter, or something like that lady wrote, with all the vampires.
You should ignore any strangled snorts or choking sounds the writer may make at this point. They aren't laughing at you, they've simply swallowed their coffee the wrong way.
It's even better if you cross genres with this tactic. Tell a poet they should write like Dan Brown. They'll appreciate the advice.
2. Tell them you're thinking about becoming a writer some day. Make it sound as easy as taking up doorknob collecting. If you are currently writing something, especially an unfinished first novel, tell them. Then ask if they know any editors or agents who could look at it.
Writers know that what they do doesn't take years of practice or any real skill. Show them you understand this.
Bonus points if you use the any of the following phrases: "when I get the time" "on the side" or "if I didn't have to work at my real job."
3. Remember that paying someone to publish your work is THE EXACT SAME THING as selling it to a publisher. Ask the writer how much she paid to publish her novel, then act surprised if she says "nothing".
Tell the writer all about your Aunt Edna, who has a book out with PublishAmerica. Offer Edna's phone number in case the writer needs advice about publishing. If you hear a grinding noise during this part of the conversation, ignore it. Writers grind their teeth all the time. It helps them think.
4. Invade their space. A writer is a lonely person with no boundaries. Instead of simply asking him what he's working on, read the computer screen over his shoulder. Pick up his notebook and read out loud from it, making helpful comments as you go. When you finally give it back, offer to read the whole thing. Remind him that writers need editors.
Don't worry if you barely know the writer in question, and have only met him once or twice. And don't be concerned if you've never edited anything before. Language is easy!
Remember, these people need your advice and help. And writers are usually gentle souls, so your chances of getting stabbed with a freshly sharpened pencil are very low.
By applying these simple etiquette tips, Gentle Reader, you too can make a distinct impression on any writer you meet. I guarantee it.
Miss B. Manners