'My first novel was published 18 years ago and I still get asked the oddest questions'

Author Cathy Kelly writes about all the unusual things she gets asked about as a writer and gives some tips to those who think they have a book in them.

‘WHAT WAS YOUR last book called?’ asked the woman in the shop, staring at me.

‘And what was it about again? I forget. I like a bit of silly stuff to read on the plane, but I forget about it all immediately afterwards.’

The queue in the supermarket is handy for this sort of conversation because you can convulsively clutch your trolley and try to smile back as you wonder why you still haven’t got an answer to this sort of thing.

‘Well, er,’ I muttered to the woman.

It was about Paris and the archetype of the wedding and what it means to be in a family…

Finally, some kind deity clouted me silently round the head, told me to shut up and I stopped.

Biting my tongue 

The thing is, I know this woman. She has her own business. She would whack me over the head with her ludicrously expensive handbag if I told her that her business was hopeless, forgettable or stupid.

But somehow, in the weird way that means writing is not a proper job, she decided it was entirely acceptable to say this to me.

‘Do you think she meant to be hideously rude or she didn’t realise what she was saying?’ I anxiously asked my friend afterwards, hoping for the best. Cue a snort down the phone:

Of course, she meant it!

Strange and unusual comments and questions are part and parcel of the life of a writer. Eighteen years after my first novel was published, I am getting slightly better at most of them.

shutterstock_89604583 Shutterstock / Pixelbliss Shutterstock / Pixelbliss / Pixelbliss

For example, I know now how to handle the sweet people who are mad to write but have a problem. ‘I’d love to write a book about my life,’ said a man wistfully to me once at a dinner.

He went on to explain all the interesting bits and I agreed that it all sounded fascinating.

‘The problem,’ he said, looking at me earnestly, ‘is the words.’ Yes, I admitted. The words were often the problem. I find that myself.

Eventually, it transpired that he hoped I might help with the small issue of the words, seeing as he had the material that would make us both zillionaires.

Bring my ideas to fruition 

For a brief, heady moment, I wondered why this sensible man who had built up an incredible industry single-handedly hadn’t wondered how I did my business and how I managed without him up to now? Did he not see that I came up with both the idea and the words, and that was how it worked?

But no. So I let him in on the secret that works with both people who will never write a book, and people who definitely could but are nervous about it: ‘tape yourself and get it all typed up,’ I said. ‘Then look at it.’

‘Do you write all the words?’ is another great question writers are asked. You don’t want to be eating when you are asked this one.

Do I write all the words?’ asked my wise friend in astonishment when she was asked this. ‘Yeah, all the words. And the full stops, you know…

shutterstock_236632711 Shutterstock / clownbusiness Shutterstock / clownbusiness / clownbusiness

My wise friend said that she did every fifth word and the publishers put in all the rest, including punctuation.

This, apparently, made the questioner happy. It WAS easy to write a book. One word in five: sure, it was a doddle.

People who have a book in them 

‘I don’t read, but I’d love to write a book,’ is another great one. People are always thrilled with themselves when they tell you this because it’s proof that they have not sullied themselves with other people’s ideas and therefore, their book will be new and original.

‘Reading helps,’ I like to say gently, which is the understatement of the year. ‘Otherwise, it’s like trying to design a dress when you’ve never seen one.’ If they write to me with this information, I can add – very diplomatically – that reading helps eliminate all those pesky mistakes like random capitals.

You have to say this gently because nobody wants their dreams stepped on and I like to think that there might be a book in there but that it needs more help to get out.

An old friend of a friend once contacted me because he wanted to write a book. He was ready, he said. Totally ready. He had always wanted to write.

Great, I said, full of encouragement. But what would he write about, he asked, in all innocence. Did I know?

I will never know how to answer people like the rude woman in the supermarket because there really is no answer. But I know what to say to people who long to write and are stuck at the very beginning.

‘Read, read, read some more. Observe. And write for practice, for the sheer joy of it. Then, hopefully, you will know what you want to write about.’

Cathy Kelly’s new book, Between Sisters, is available from all good bookshops nationwide. You can visit her website here, her Facbook page and she’s on Twitter.

Have you tried your hand at writing a book. Share your tips in the comments section below.

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