“So, what do you write about?”
I usually dread being asked that question, although it’s far from unreasonable. I dreaded being asked about my writing so much that for several years after I started writing seriously, I avoided mentioning my writing at all. I did tell one friend early on, who patted me on the shoulder and said encouragingly that it was good that I had such a neat “hobby”.
Incredibly, this discouraged me so much I immediately clammed up about my writing.
However, when I got serious about publishing a novel, it occurred to me that this particular method wasn’t going to work wonders for sales. I had to let the cat out of the bag, and not just to my close friends. I had to let the world in on the fact that I write. And if I was going to do that I needed to come up with a sensible answer to the writer’s most dreaded question: What do you write about?
Problem is, all my answers sound very trite. “Love.” “Romance.” “The psychological intricacies of a loving sexual relationship between a man and a woman.” Okay, that last one isn’t trite, it’s just silly and I could never say it with a straight face.
In search of an answer for myself, I asked some women writers I am lucky enough to call friends for their answers. Here they are, in the order in which they were received:
Didi Wood: “This question always makes me think of a scene in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, where retired gunslinger Will Munny asks biographer W.W. Beauchamp: ‘A writer? What do you write … letters an’ such?’
“I write fiction – stories and novels. My writing tends toward the literary, in that it’s focused more on character than plot. Longing and a desire for connection seem to be prevalent themes (I know that only because a friend pointed it out – I’m horrible with the big-picture, summary-type stuff). I write what moves and entertains and haunts me, with the hope that it will have the same effect on readers. The simple answer, I suppose, is that I write what I want to read.
“(I should add that it took me two hours to compose that succinct little answer – that will give you a sense of how tough the question is for me. I removed the bits where I say what I do NOT write – who wants to be defined by negation? – and the parts where I bitch about my other favorite questions, including, “What’s it about?” and “Have I seen anything you’ve written?” and “Do you get paid?”)”
Want more from Didi? (Trust me, you do!) Check out this story: Home Again.
(Note: My next answer came from an excellent writer I have known for years, Avital Gad-Cykman. However, I hesitated to print what she answered because I wasn’t sure if she was answering my request for an answer or the question itself. She assured me this is her answer when presented with the opportunity.)
Avital Gad-Cykman: “I’m sorry, but I’m really allergic to this question…” You can find lots of Avital’s elegant fiction online for free by Googling her, but here’s one to get you started: Crystal and Gold.
Debbie Ann Ice: “Let’s see, I usually say, ‘fiction’. Then there is this eerie silence like they are trying to remember what that is. Then they say, “what kind of fiction?” My response is “mostly short stories, but I like novels too.” Usually I change the subject before they start the “Are you in the New Yorker? Do you have a novel published?” But people talk fast here and changing the subject is hard. I sometimes tell them where to go to find my stories. And if I send them the url below, they tend to stop calling me.” Curious? Check it out: Dead Crows.
Marcia Lynx Qualey, who lives in Cairo, Egypt, where she teaches a fiction workshop and maintains the literary blog Arabic Literature (in English): “When answering in Arabic, I sometimes say ‘qusas,’ (stories), although this implies that I write for children. Sometimes I say ‘adab’ (literature), but this seems too snotty. Usually, I just say that I write for a ‘journal fi Amreeka.’
“In English, I make out that I’m just a book critic, and say that I review for magazines (which is true, but obviously not the whole of my writerly identity). It’s much more comfortable than explaining that I see myself as a–good grief!–artist.”
You can find one of Marcia’s stories here: Creation.
Alicia Gifford: “When I’m asked about my writing, more specifically, ‘What do you write?’ I say I write short fiction. Because I do! The next question that invariably comes is, ‘Have you ever been published?’ ‘Yes!’ I say. ‘Google me.’ Sometimes, if the look on my querier’s face is still blank, I might add that I write short stories like what they feature in The New Yorker. ‘Have you been in The New Yorker?’ ‘No,’ I say, ‘not YET.'” Find out why I think Alicia will have a story in The New Yorker sooner rather than later: Desilu, Three Cameras.
Bailey Hunter, founding member of The Horror Library and creator of Dark Recesses Press: “When I tell folks I write, of course the first question is ‘What do you write?’ I desperately want to say WORDS, but I know this won’t do. It’s like when my kids ask me what’s for supper and I say FOOD. Apparently that’s not enough info.
“So instead I say I like to write ‘literary horror’. That is usually good for a few blank stares followed by ‘Oh. You mean like those Jason movies?’ Uhhh…Yeah. No, not like those. I like to write scary stories that cause you to think, to feel. Cool creep instead of instant gag reflex.
“Next question is ‘Have you published anything I would have seen?’ Answer: Probably not since you’ve just compared all horror to Friday the 13th.”
Bailey’s stories have appeared online and in print. (Check out The Horror Library Volume 1, which also features a story by yours truly.) For a very brief look at Bailey’s fiction that’ll leave you wanting more, try: Price of Immorality.
Ellen Meister, author of Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA and The Smart One: “When people ask, ‘What do you write?’ I usually answer, ‘Novels.’ This is invariably followed by the dreaded, “What genre?”
“I wish I had an easy answer, like ‘mystery’ or ‘thriller’ or ‘romance.’ But each of my books can be categorized in a different way. My first, SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA, can easily be called ‘mom lit.’ I’m fine with that, but my second book, THE SMART ONE, has a childless protagonist. That one is more accurately called a ‘sister story.’
“Both of these books employ a lot of humor, but I can’t call myself a writer of comic novels since my next book in the pipeline, THE OTHER LIFE, is pretty serious, and even has a paranormal element. I suppose they could all be called ‘women’s fiction,’ and I’m fine with that, but really despise the dismissive reaction that usually gets.
“What to do? I think from now on I’ll tell people I write mainstream fiction, give them a free bookmark, and let them figure out the rest on their own.”
If you’d like to get a free taste of Ellen’s work (I highly recommend it), check out this story: Finding Cooper. If you’re like me, however, and just a short story isn’t enough, you can find a synopsis of her upcoming novel here: The Other Life.
Well, at least I know my friends and colleagues have the same problems answering questions about their writing that I do. And talking to them has helped me come up with an answer. So ask me again.
“What do you write about?”
“Thank you for asking. In a fiction workshop a long time ago, I was told to write about what I know. I know about being a woman, so I write about women and the relationships they have with the world around them, often romantic, but sometimes familial, like between mother and child or sisters and brothers.”
Whatcha think about that answer?