This week is marks the beginning of a new term for me. Well, two new terms actually, as I am teaching at two different colleges now. As a result, I am being asked a series of questions that I’ve heard many times before, so I thought I’d create a list of the most commonly asked ones along with my standard answers. If you have other questions, please feel free to ask them! I’ll add them to the list and post them here.
Q. Do you have to like English to write?
A. Not necessarily, but you do have to have a pretty good grasp of the language to be successful. For example: a common mistake that shows you don’t know as much as you think is the pronoun conundrum. “A good friend is worth their weight in gold.” Looks like an okay sentence, right? Wrong. The subject of the sentence is “A friend” – that’s a singular noun. But the pronoun “their” is plural. This is a common gaffe made by those who are trying to be politically correct or trying to avoid the he/she dilemma. The sentence either needs to read “A good friend is worth his or her weight in gold,” or “Good friends are worth their weight in gold.” See the difference?
Q. Where do you get your ideas from.
A. Everywhere – literally. I’m a people watcher and an admitted eaves-dropper. I get ideas from my family, my friends, the news, people I like, people I don’t like, people I’ve never met before. The truth is that most writers, myself included, have more ideas than we know what to do with or will ever have time to write about.
Q. I’m not really a reader, but I want to write a book. Does it matter if I read or not?
A. Only if you want to be good at what you do. Reading books, magazines, newspapers, newsletters, poetry, short stories, plays, anything written by successful – and even not so successful – writers will show you a lot about how to craft (or sometimes how NOT to craft) your own work. Most writers are big readers, and most of us have been from an early age. We love language. We love seeing words sculpted into scenes that make us laugh, make us frightened, make us worry, or make us sigh. We like words that have been skillfully tethered together to produce images in our minds as we read them. And we like taking those images and trying to reproduce them ourselves in our own words to fit our own set of circumstances for our characters. Only reading gives you that experience.
Q. How do you start writing? Where do you begin a new idea?
A. The smart-Alec answer is “at the beginning” but in all honesty, that isn’t always where I start. I start by asking “What if?” I take an idea about a character, a scene, something I’ve seen or heard and I ask “What if?” For example, for years my mom would tell the story of having to take her little brother (my late uncle) everywhere she went. He was such a brat (he was 4, she was 14), that she put him on a leash to keep him from running away. This action predates the toddler harnesses that are a common sight today, so my mom was kind of an innovator. As I was thinking about this as a story, I asked myself “What if the kid actually pretended he was a dog?” And the book “My Brother the Dog” was born from there.
Q. How much money do you make as a writer?
A. Not enough to quit teaching just yet, I’m afraid. Every writer believes that he or she will be the next (John Grisham, Steven King, J.K. Rowling, ________________), but the sad the truth is not everyone will be that successful. Some people only every publish one book and find the industry is too much for them to handle and their dreams are shattered. Others are lucky to catch on and become moderately successful. There is a broad range to the term “success” however, and it isn’t necessarily defined by money. Would I like to make J.K. Rowling’s money? Well, DUH! But I’m pretty okay with the way things are. It will happen when it happens, I trust that.
Q. How long does it take to become a writer?
A. Depends on who you are, what you do, which way the wind is blowing, what your lucky number is . . . I know wonderful, talented writers that required years and years before they were successful. I know mediocre writers who hit upon a genius idea and became successful in a very short time. And then there are good writers, working hard, who require a few years before they find the right editor at the right house at the right time. It’s a craps shoot sometimes. The key is not to sell out to a place that isn’t really going to represent your work or isn’t as professional as you want. The key is also not giving up just because it’s taking time. Perseverance is a big part of this weird industry.
Well – that’s plenty for today. We’ll play some more with this another time. Until then, keep reading, keep writing, and enjoy the process.