We all know the feeling. You've given a fascinating, witty, entertaining talk about your writing, to a receptive audience who seemed suitably impressed, laughed in the right places, and mostly managed not to fall asleep. Basking in the glow of their smiles of appreciation, you close by saying you'd be happy to answer any questions ... and if you're lucky, a few hands are raised straight away. With even greater luck, there'll be some good questions about interesting aspects of your talk - why you do or don't use a pseudonym, whether you choose your own cover images, and so on. You respond, pleased again to note the hushed attention in the hall, the way your words are obviously enthralling your intelligent audience. And all the time, you're kind of holding your breath, waiting for it, because sooner or later it's going to come ....
'Where do you get your ideas from?'
Actually, I don't really mind that one, even though I've heard it compared to asking a carpenter where he gets his wood from. It's a fair enough question, and an easy one to answer (ideas come from everywhere - from being alive, from being observant, from talking to people, from reading, from watching the News ... I could go on, and frequently do.) Sometimes I've joked that my ideas come to me in dreams, simply because people seem to prefer that answer to the mundane 'Everywhere, life, (etc).'
But there are other, far worse things you can ask an author, or say to him/her. I've had most of them said to me, and have on occasions had to grit my teeth and force my face into a sweet smile in order to give a reply that isn't a snarl of irritation.
So if you want to avoid upsetting your favourite famous author when you're lucky enough to meet her at a festival, or even upsetting your friend, neighbour, brother or wife who happens to be a not-at-all-famous author and might be more likely than the other kind to bite your head off, here's a list of comments and questions to avoid:
1. (My most hated one): 'I'd write a book too, if only I had the time'. I wrote six of mine while working full-time and looking after kids, home, etc, so Don't Talk To Me About Having Time! As if time is all you need, anyway, to be able to write a novel! Oh, I'd be a brain surgeon and play football for Man United if only I had the time. Grrrrr.....
2. (In a similar vein): 'I've got an idea for a book but I don't know how to start writing it/haven't got time to write it/don't want to write it. If you like, I'll tell you and you can use it. It's my life history ...'
And ... don't tell me, you're convinced it will make me rich.
3. 'Is it autobiographical?' No. It's fiction. I made it up. That's what I do.
4. 'Am I in it?' No. But if you were, I'd get you murdered off.
5. 'I haven't heard of you' aka 'I haven't seen your books in Tesco.' No, because I'm not in the best seller list, I'm not a celebrity, there are thousands of other authors competing with me and you've just rubbed my nose in it.
6. 'Why are you still working?' This was a common one before I retired from the day job. People seemed to think that, because I'd had some books published, I'd be selling up, moving to Antigua or the Azores and living in the lap of luxury. Hello? If an author has a day job, it's because he needs it, because most authors don't earn their living from writing. Trust me, I didn't work for the NHS for the fun of it!
7. 'How much do you earn?' I mean, honestly - would you ask a plumber, or a postman, or an accountant that question?
8. 'Why don't you write science fiction/erotica/a TV series/a serious literary novel? Probably for the same kind of reasons YOU don't.
9. 'Would you like to see one of your books made into a film/ a TV mini series/ a best seller? Do I really even need to answer this one? Should I try a sarcastic 'No, I'd hate it', or is that too mean?!
And finally, of course, there's always:
10. 'I've written a book too. Can you tell me how to get it published?' Certainly. It might take a while to tell you, though. About 40 years, in fact - that's how long it took me to learn how to do it myself.
I should finish by saying that this is all, of course, a bit tongue-in-cheek. I really love talking to people about writing, and I've never actually been known to get irritated enough by any question, or comment, to want to murder the person making it ... even as a character in my next book. So feel free ... ask away. Er ... but maybe just don't get me started on the thing about not having enough time ...