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Frequently Asked Writing Questions

Reading About WritingHere are some of the most common questions people have asked me about writing. Got a question that’s not answered here? Ask me!

Where do you get ideas?

EVERYWHERE! Everyone I meet inspires something in my characters, whether it’s a physical quality or a quirk or something she’s said. Every place I visit, job I’ve worked, movie I watch, book I read -– all of these things inform my fiction. I also read the newspaper for ideas -– even the shortest news story can spark an idea for a character or plot point. That’s one of the great things about fiction writing. The seeds of ideas are everywhere, just waiting to be planted and watered and grown into something cool. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you never know when inspiration may strike.

Did you go to college to be a writer? Do you think students who want to become writers should major in English or Literature?

I studied Communication in college, which has some writing components but not a creative writing focus. I don’t think you need to major in English or a writing-related discipline to become a writer. I definitely recommend taking writing classes, joining a critique group, and reading tons of classic and current literature, but you can do all of those things while majoring in astrophysics or psychology or architecture if you want to (or while not going to college at all). And if there’s something you might love writing about, like history or anthropology or earth science, then yes, you should definitely follow that course of study. But only if you’re really into the subject, because with higher education you’re making a pretty big financial, emotional, and time commitment to study something for 2 to 4 (or more!) years, so whatever it is, make sure you really want it!

Do you have any other advice for aspiring writers?

  1. Don’t do it. Find something else to do – anything anything anything but writing. It’s an insane emotional roller-coaster involving a lot of self-loathing, crying, fear, doubt, and woefully shameful antics of stupidity. Go to college or grad school or med school or clown school. Invent something or build something or sell your soul or sit on a bean bag chair and eat Veggie Booty all day as long as you do not become a writer. To be a writer by choice, you have to be crazy, desperate, just plain stupid, or some way-too-strong cocktail of the three…
  2. I didn’t really mean that. If you’re still with me, you’ve learned the first and most important lesson about being a writer. We don’t say no, even when everyone else tells us what a bad or hopeless or moneyless or pointless dream it is. We learn to say, “Hey, naysayers! You say crazy, I say passionate!” And we keep going. We write again and again and again, no matter what, because not writing is a choice. Writing… just is.
  3. Read. A lot. Read anything and everything you can get your hands on. Read first for enjoyment, and then again and again for analysis. Read lots of stuff in your genre and then mix it up. Read cereal boxes and soup labels if nothing else is available… Just keep reading!
  4. Write. You have to write for real. I’ve probably spent more hours in my life daydreaming and talking about writing than actually writing, and I’m making up for it now at full speed. Write what excites you. Write what makes you laugh and cry. Write the stories that keep you up at night. And no matter what, do not walk away from it.

That’s a good start, anyway. 🙂

I’m a writer, too. Can you read my novel / story / query letter?

No, I’m not able to read unsolicited materials. But it’s a good idea to have someone read your work, particularly if your goal is to become a published author. One of the best things you can do for your writing is to invite feedback from other readers and writers outside your circle of family and friends. Consider joining an in-person or online critique group so that you can get an outsider’s honest perspective on your work. Something that’s obvious to you in the plot might confuse someone who’s never read your story. A character that’s fully developed in your head might not be translating on to the page. You may have pored over the lines of your story so many times that you’ve lost all perspective. So by all means, find a few trusted readers to check it out before you start querying agents.

I’ve heard the agent search can take a long time, so I’d like to get a head start. Do you have to finish writing a book before querying agents?

Yes. For debut fiction authors, you should complete your manuscript before trying to pitch it to agents. When you send a query letter to an agent, you’re basically presenting a short summary of the book in an attempt to interest the agent in representing you. If the agent likes the sound of your story and writing based on your query, he will ask you for either a partial (anywhere from 20 to 100 pages) or the full (the complete manuscript). Even if he asks for the partial, if he likes that, he’ll want to see the full next. So if you’re not done yet, and an agent is excited about your work and wants to see it, you’ve just wasted his time, because you don’t have anything to show him yet. Now you’re rushing to finish it, or backpedaling, and probably missing your chance at working with that agent. Yes, sometimes it does take a while to find the right agent for you and your work. But sometimes it only takes a few days. Be prepared and professional! Finish your work and make it the best you can make it before you start your search. It will be worth the effort!