How to talk to an author

This Saturday  I was chatting with some of my writing comrades when a young man approached me. He was an aspiring author and wanted to talk with me because we both write YA. I always take time out to talk to anyone who wants advice because:

a) I was in that position once.

b) I was nervous as hell to talk to anyone. (Still am.)

c) I’m no different than budding writers now, even with five published books.

I also don’t want to discourage anyone. It’s the teacher in me, I suppose. But the sucker in me always gets pulled into longer conversations than I’d like. When you approach someone, you might not have any idea how much time you’re taking up or if you’re being inappropriate (been there, done that!). So here’s some advice:

1. Be specific. When you approach someone (look at you! brave!) have 2 or 3 questions in mind. Like, how did you find your agent? What is a working relationship like with an editor? What did you find difficult when you were staring out? etc. Every author has a different story, and while your path will not mirror anyone elses, you might find out that they were just as frustrated as you, or learn some pitfalls to avoid.

2. LISTEN. So many times people approach me and then chat me up about their project and how great they think it is and why they think they’re the next big thing, if ONLY someone would give them a chance! If you’re talking more than I am, I’m out. I may stand there, because I’m polite (and a sucker), but I’m not invested in you anymore. Know why? I’m not your therapist. Writing is hard. For all of us. If I learned anything this weekend, it’s that all authors are struggling with something regardless of their level of success.

3. Move on. After I’ve answered your questions, say “thank you” and leave. The fact is, I can’t help you with your book, or getting an agent or publisher, so telling me about your project is not productive for either of us. And since we’re not really colleagues, we’re not in a position to commisserate over our issues. I would never go up to say Kate diCamillo and complain about how hard it was to get my second novel published because she’s past that stage. And I’m sure you don’t want to hear me complain about that either since you’d love to have that problem from where you’re standing.

WARNING: If the author (or authors) you approach look uncomfortable or upset that you’ve come up to them, apologize and back away. If they are dismissive, back away without a word, and move on to someone else, or go have a beer and lick your wounds. Not everyone will talk to you and it might not have anything to do with you. They might be having a really rotten day. I’ve had this happen to me and it ain’t pretty. Yet another reason I tend to stick to myself and figure things out solo.