Many of us have heard the Eleanor Roosevelt quote “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
When it comes to something as personal as our writing, though, sometimes it's hard to put that advice into practice.
While most people you talk to about your books will be supportive or at least polite, odds are you will run into someone (or more than one someones) who says something that leaves you feeling bad about yourself or your writing.
The comment may be made unintentionally or it might be designed to belittle you.
As I mentioned last week in Mastering Talking About Your Books, fear of these types of comments can keep us from telling people about our writing despite that it helps our careers to do so. I think this can be especially so for self-published writers because we don't have the outside validation that trad-published writers get when a traditional publisher backs their work.
Below are a few thoughts on how to handle unkind, thoughtless, or snarky comments, followed by a some responses I've used.
Taking Comments In The Best Light
I find it helpful to answer each comment or question as if it had been meant in the most positive way possible.
For one thing, that might be true.
Sometimes the person is genuinely asking for information or expressing interest or support, but doesn't know a question might be intrusive or upsetting.
When I was submitting a manuscript to publishers and agents and getting rounds of rejections, a business colleague of mine would always say, “Hey, keep trying, you’ll be just like that Harry Potter lady. Pretty soon you’ll be a millionaire.”
He was trying to be supportive, but every time I’d plummet into depression because I couldn’t possibly have felt farther from J.K. Rowling. My colleague didn’t know that I’d already been trying, and trying, and trying for years. I’d written several novels, yet I’d never made a single dollar on a piece of fiction. (I sold one short story for $15 and the check bounced.)
As another example, most people don’t realize asking how many books you’ve sold is a bit like asking your salary.
Some people might be comfortable answering that, but others won’t be. If you’re not, you can come up with some responses you do feel okay with.
Recognize It’s Not About You
Sometimes a person’s comments about you or your work are really about themselves and where they are or want to be.
For example, someone who says “I wish I had time to do nothing like you do” (I've had people say this) on hearing that you write fiction may be feeling overwhelmed at work and desperately wants to be doing something else.
This also is true for someone who makes comments that undermine you.
For instance, a relative once called to ask me about self-publishing paperbacks. She knew I’d published a series, and she was giving a workshop for people in a retirement home who had written memoirs or family histories and might want to publish them.
After I’d given her information on tips, costs, and publishing platforms, she said, “Thanks. I figure most people will self-publish because their writing is pretty bad. The ones who wrote anything good will get real publishing deals.”
I was so surprised by her implying that my writing must not be any good, especially after I’d spent an hour of my time helping her, that I didn’t respond.
Later, I thought about it and realized that she often threw digs about my writing and publishing into conversations as asides or “jokes.”
None of it had anything to do with my writing. She'd never read my books.
Instead, her snarky comments reflected something inside her. What exactly I don't know, but it doesn't matter. There are no good reasons for trying to tear someone else down, and someone who does that isn't a friend.
Ways To Respond
Over the years I’ve developed some answers that work for me to difficult comments.
Most are based on the idea that the person is genuinely seeking or offering helpful information, even if they’re not, and others are meant to shift the conversation, point out that the questions might be a bit tactless, or elicit information that might actually be helpful.
My friend sold 100,000 copies of her book the first week. How many have you sold?
- Answers (assuming you haven’t sold 100,000):
That’s fantastic. Do you think she would meet me and give me some advice?
I’d love to sell 100,000 in one week. Do you have any suggestions on doing that?
I haven’t sold 100,000 this week. Maybe next week!
Oh, you wrote a book. Did you self-publish it? (said with raised eyebrows or while looking down the nose)
Yes, I did. Are you thinking about it? I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned.
Yes, I did. I love having control and keeping all the profits.
Did you try getting a real publisher?
I thought about a traditional publisher, but I’d rather work to make money for myself than a big company.
No, I like having control over my creative work.
Why? Do you know a good one?
Your book sounds dull. Why don’t you write about something interesting/ important, like General Custer/animal rights/wizards?
Oh, are you interested in General Custer/animal rights/wizards? Tell me more about that.
Is there anything I could change in how I described the book(s) that might make it sound more interesting to you?
How much do you make writing books?
It varies. Some authors earn six or seven figures, others earn enough to cover their Starbucks habit.
Oh, I’m sure you make more. What’s your yearly salary?
I wish I had time to sit around and do nothing but write.
What would you write about?
Sounds like you have a busy schedule. What have you been working on lately?
If you like, I could share some tips/recommend a good book on how to fit writing into a busy schedule.
Obviously, these aren’t the only ways to respond. I offer them in case they might be helpful to you, or to spark your own ideas for what to say.
However you choose to answer, having responses ready can help you shift away from a comment or question that might undermine your confidence. And it might help you learn something new or get to know the other person better.
Until next Friday–