10 Awkward Writing Questions

We’ve all been there: someone discovers you’re a writer, fixes you with a curious eye, and blurts out That Question.

Where do you get your ideas?

I usually say “www.ideas.com” and change the subject. Here are 10 more awkward questions you’ll hear – and how to respond.

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  • How much money do you make? I don’t know why, but people just assume writers a) all make what Stephen King makes and b) don’t mind talking about their salary. The best response here is a vague “Enough” and a quick change of subject.
  • Will you read my novel? Or my friend’s or my relative’s or anybody else’s. The correct answer is “I’m sorry, but I just don’t have time.” If they seem serious, explain how they can go about finding a professional copy editor (and mention that those folks get paid for their hard work).
  • Will you write a book with me/for me? Everybody has that One Great Idea … it’d make a fantastic book or movie. If only they had someone to help them write it, or to write it for them. If you’re truly interested in their idea, you can offer to help them (but don’t expect much out of someone who hasn’t actually sat down and tried to write on their own first). The better answer is “I’m sorry, but I just don’t have time.” You could explain how they can find a ghost writer if they seem serious (and mention that those folks get paid for their hard work).
  • How do you get published? Here’s another would-be writer who’s never actually put any work or research into the craft. The polite answer is “You can find a ton of information on that subject on the internet and Writer’s Digest puts out a great book every year called ‘Writers’ Market’ to help you.”
  • How are your books doing? People think this is expressing polite interest, even though it smacks of our first awkward question. The best answer is “They’re doing fine – have you bought your copy yet?”
  • Is your book at the library? Most people have no idea how libraries (or bookstores) actually work. The best answer here is “I don’t know, but if you request a copy, they’ll get it for you.” You could also remind them to give you a review on Amazon and/or Goodreads once they’ve read it.
  • Is your book on the bestseller list? Unless it actually is, the answer would be “Not yet, but if you buy a copy and tell all your friends to buy one, it might get there.”
  • How do you find an agent? This one’s done a bit more work than the “How do you get published” questioner, but they’re still not applying themselves. The right answer is “Writer’s Digest puts out a great book every year called ‘Guide to Literary Agents.'”
  • Have you been on any talk shows? Sometimes people equate “author” with “celebrity.” If they’re genuinely confused, you can politely remind them that most authors don’t get invited to talk shows. A good answer is “Not yet – how about you?”
  • When will your book be made into a movie? Here’s another common misconception you might politely correct if you feel the need. The best answer is “I have no idea.”

And of course, you’re welcome to think up your own replies to “Where do you get your ideas?”

10 Steps to Writing a Travel Article

(And a Bonus Step to Boot!)

One of my Works in Progress is a travelogue for “I Must Be Off!”

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Here are some of the tips I’ve learned about writing a travel article:

  • Write a snappy lead-in. Hook your reader’s interest early.
  • Have a clear storyline. Not everything on your journey will be interesting to your readers. It’s your job as a storyteller to decide what makes a good tale and leave out the rest.
  • Have a goal. Not every story has a definite goal like swimming the English Channel. Most are about the journey, the discovery. You’re meeting new people and learning their history and culture. Make it clear to your reader which type of story you’re telling early on.
  • Chose one moment. Instead of a chronological catalog of everything you did, pick one experience and expand that into a great story.
  • Show yourself. Let the reader see your unique voice in your writing.
  • Edit, edit, edit. Most travel articles are from 1,000 to 2,000 words, so you’ll have to pare the story to the bone. Drop anything not essential.
  • Add dialogue. It makes the story more vivid, more memorable.
  • Use vivid language. Avoid cliches and trite descriptive phrases. Try to portray how you felt as you experienced this journey.
  • Aim to entertain, not to impress. This isn’t the place to use big words and literary terms. Your goal is to tell the reader a great story.
  • Leave a signpost. Keep your reader with you by periodically reminding them where you are and where you’re going.
  • Ask yourself the 5 W’s: Where? Who? When? Why? and What?
    • Where? Quickly ground your reader so they know where they are and where you’re going.
    • Who? Introduce yourself to your readers as well, so they want to follow you on your adventures.
    • When? Make sure the reader knows when the story takes place.
    • Why? Explain why you took this journey and why it made an impression on you.
    • What? Include the facts: anecdotes, details, quotes and interesting tidbits of information. Involve as many senses as you can to create vivid impressions.

7 Sure-Fire Story Ideas

Coming up with new story ideas is easy for some writers – they have trouble narrowing their ideas down to just one!

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However, some writers have more trouble figuring out a good plot to go with their characters. For those who do, here are some tried and true tips:

  • Ask “what if?” – look at any ordinary situation and imagine what would happen if …. What if the blind date that man is waiting for at the table next to yours turns out to be a psychopath — or his soulmate? What if that off-the-beaten-path trail leads to a murder scene? What if the train derails just as it pulls into the station?
  • Finish this quote: _____ was not what it seemed. You can make an unlimited number of stories this way. The new neighbors were not what they seemed. The charming hotel was not what it seemed. The road trip was not what it seemed.
  • Finish this quote as well: If only she/he hadn’t ______. This is another practically infinite prompt. If only he hadn’t taken that short cut. If only she hadn’t tried that new restaurant. If only they hadn’t decided to vacation here.
  • Eavesdrop. This is always a great way to get story ideas. You hear the oddest things in a public location, and any one of them could turn into a great story for you.
  • Reinvent a scene from a book or movie. Take an insignificant scene from a book or movie and imagine that as the opening scene for your story.
  • Surf the net. Type a subject into your search engine and just start clicking anything that looks interesting. You’re bound to come up with something that stirs your imagination pretty quickly.
  • Catch up with the news. Watch online or on TV, or read the newspaper. Something’s sure to catch your eye and trigger your emotions.

These aren’t all the ways a writer can come up with great story ideas, of course, but they’re ones that have always worked.

What are your tried and true idea generating ideas?

Works in Progress

So I have a couple of projects cooking at the moment, and I thought you’d be interested in what’s going on.

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First, Western Fictioneers like my story for Luck of the Draw and have asked that I create a character for the shared-universe setting of Wolf Creek. This is very exciting – I love the series and am fascinated with working in a shared world.

I’m working on a character that is basically Chance if he’d grown up in a different sort of world. Dublin is a mixed-race street kid from New York City who gets caught in a police raid and sent to the orphanage, where he is promptly shoved onto one of the Orphan Trains that operated back then, carrying orphans West (presumably to happy homes, but more often to families that just wanted extra labor for the farm). Dublin’s having no part of that, so he manages to escape when the train stops for fuel and water at Wolf Creek, Kansas.

Dublin is convinced he will have no trouble surviving in the country, though his ultimate goal is to get back to his home in New York. He’s going to learn that surviving in the street of a big city takes totally different skills than surviving in a small town on the middle of the prairie. I envision Dublin as a go-between for the town, shuttling information back and forth between the “good” side of town and the “bad” side – his fingers in every pie, feelers out for all secrets and gossip, willing to sell his knowledge to the highest bidder. He’s not above an honest day’s work, but he’d much rather earn his money quasi-legally without what he thinks of as actual labor.

The second project is another Kye and the Kid story. My agent sent me a link to the latest Malice Domestic anthology, “Mystery Most Historical.” I’ve got until July 31 to send in a 3,500-5,000 word mystery story set in the past.

Kye and Chance are in San Francisco for this story, still in their teens and new to the city. They visit a carnival and Kye talks Chance into seeing a Gypsy fortuneteller. The story revolves around a mysterious stranger, nefarious doings (that weren’t orchestrated by Chance), and a cryptic warning about ravens. I think it’s going to be pretty good.

Keep an eye peeled for these two projects – I’ll post links once the Wolf Creek story is published, and I’ll let you know what happens to the Malice Domestic entry.

Mindful Writing

I found this interesting article on mindful writing that might interest my readers.

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Mindfulness is a technique that focuses on the “now” of your life – paying attention to what is going on around and within you at the moment, rather than worrying about the future or dwelling on the past.

Here are the steps to the mindful writing exercise:

  • Set a timer for 30 minutes – the first few times you try this, you’ll be releasing a lot of what the writer calls “superfluous thoughts” – stuff like “This is stupid” or “I’m just wasting time” – stick with it and keep going for the full half hour
  • Try keeping your eyes closed – if you can’t touch-type, then leave them open – but do the exercise with pen and paper instead
  • At the end of each sentence, stop for one deep inhale and exhale – don’t try to think “positive thoughts,” but focus on a feeling of warmth and friendliness – the writer suggests aiming for that feeling you get when you look at a cute baby animal – if you fall asleep, don’t worry, you must have really needed the rest!

For this exercise, don’t begin with any concrete outcome in mind. Just sit down and start writing and breathing. You might try starting a gratitude journal or mindfulness essay.

As you become adept at this mindfulness exercise, your mind will stop feeding you useless thoughts like “I should be working on the novel” and start producing some real creativity for you.

Creating Characters

I’ve been invited to create a new character for the Western Fictioneers – something for the shared world of Wolf Creek. This is an 1872 town on the Kansas prairie, with characters created by a variety of authors. We’ve just published Book 16 and my new character will make his appearance in the next anthology.

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I thought I’d share a few tips on creating a new character, as I go through the process:

  • Start with the basics – first, you need to decide what gender, race and age your character is going to be. This may change later, but start with the basic information in mind so you have that general image.
  • Add details – decide how your character looks (at least the bare minimum of hair & eye color, approximate size, and anything unusual) and how they dress. Imagine the outer package for your character.
  • Pick a setting – where does your character come from? Where do they live and work? What do they do and how well do they do it? See your character in their natural habitat before you begin your story.
  • Fill out a chart (or two) – find one (or more) of those character charts … and you can’t go wrong with mine – just use the drop-down menu above, under Writer’s Toolkit! Fill out the chart(s) to learn about your character’s personality so you’ll know how they will act in your story.
  • Christen your child – once you can see the character clearly in your mind, it’s time to pick a name. By this time, you’ll know the sort of name that fits the character best, whether it’s a traditional name to match their ethnicity, a nickname, or something that describes their personality. My character chart also has a few links at the bottom to help you name characters.

And that’s how I came up with my new character, who’s going to be a sort of Junior Chance – young teens, mixed race, very intelligent, and a budding criminal mastermind. He’s going to serve as a connection between the different parts of Wolf Creek, running messages and selling information, performing tasks that may not be quite legal, and generally being a go-between when a citizen doesn’t want to (or can’t afford to) be seen in a certain part of town.

Use the Right Word

I’ve been skimming through some books lately, just browsing the genre. Most of what I’m looking at is obviously self-published because there are glaring errors that a professional editor would have caught and corrected. This is something that you can work on so that your books don’t come across as unprofessional.

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I found this helpful site from the Oxford dictionary, listing commonly confused words.

Another area where writers err is in commonly-heard sayings. One writer had me gritting my teeth every time she had her characters tell someone they “had another thing coming.” The correct phrase, of course, is “another think coming,” as in “If you think that, you’ve got another think coming.”

Here are some more commonly mis-heard phrases:

  • I could care less” – this means that you do care, and have more caring you could do. If you want to show your total lack of caring, it’s “I couldn’t care less.”
  • Nip it in the butt” – this would mean something’s backside is getting bitten. If you want to cut something out before it starts, you’d be “nipping it in the bud,” just the way you’d nip or pinch off a plant’s bud before the branch or flower forms.
  • For all intensive purposes” – this means your purposes are intense, which probably isn’t what you mean. “For all intents and purposes,” on the other hand, means in every practical sense.
  • “One in the same” – this would mean that something was inside another thing that was the same. If you want to say two things are no different, you say “one and the same.”
  • “Giving you leadway” – there’s no such word, though it sounds like the correct term. Leeway means room on the lee – or sheltered – side of something; in other words, enough room to pass or do what you need to do.

For You: Snippets

Here are a few scenes from the new book for your amusement!

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Our heroes have reached New York City and are taking an afternoon walk:

There is nothing quite so certain to attract the attention as a promenade in the proper section of town. Music filled the air as street musicians plied their trade along the sidewalks. Sidewalk vendors hawked their wares: hot chestnuts, neckties, jewelry, newspapers and magazines, and, of course, toys. Many of the department stores were already decorating for Christmas, and we stopped to admire their windows in the gaslight. We were forced to skip and dodge around the masses of children, all struggling for a glimpse of a mannequin dressed as Santa Claus, his trusty spyglass in hand, with which he keeps a sharp lookout for good little boys and girls.

“We shall have to purchase some token gifts for our friends back home,” Emily mused as a trio of women hustled past us, their servants close behind, laden with boxes and bags. 

“Let’s make a day of it once we’ve solved this case of ours,” I said, leading the way into a nearby restaurant. Snow, in my opinion, is far better viewed from behind a thick glass window. “We can buy up the town if you want.”

Chance decides to infiltrate a gentleman’s club:

At the door of what looked like a fairly typical mansion, I was examined minutely for evidence of substandard dress, and eventually allowed to set foot in the foyer. The man didn’t even take my coat and hat, but asked my business in a voice that would have made the stuffiest English butler proud.

“I’ll be in town for a few weeks,” I replied, putting on my best Old Money Face and ignoring the marble staircase and velvet curtains. I was fairly certain that the hat stand had cost more than our parlor sofa. I proffered my own gentleman’s club card, printed on the finest ivory paper and gilt-edged. “I’ve been told the Knickerbocker Club is a fine establishment.”

“May I ask which of our members was so indiscreet as to mention this fact?”

and Chance’s opinions on his home city:

San Francisco never ceases to enthrall me. We passed through her streets, busy even in the middle of the afternoon, and between her grand buildings. The horses strained at the steep hills, and I could hear them blowing as they hauled us upward at a steady walk. The tang of smoke filled the air, and fine ash drifted down from the chimneys of the houses and offices. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

Stone was still sulking when we alit at the Old Poodle Dog. We’d be lunching in the restaurant, not in the second-floor banquet halls, so we strolled in via the front door. The waiters knew us, of course, and whisked us quickly to a table near one of the windows. I pretended not to know that this was more to show off who was dining with them than to provide me an uninterrupted view of the never-ending parade on the city streets.

Kye and I ate at the Old Poodle Dog fairly often, and had even made use of the private suites upstairs, along with Emily. Somehow, the owners avoided scandal, though the suites included a bed and bathroom along with the dining area. Stone admitted that this was his first visit, so Kye proceeded to educate the man on the intricacies of the menu, recommending this fish and that meat. I left them to their culinary discussion and resumed my favorite activity: people-watching. At this hour of the day, most of the folks bustling along were deliverymen or servants, sprinkled with the odd businessman on a late lunch hour. I amused myself by figuring out which was which without looking at their hands, which would provide a dead giveaway.

Conflict 101

Conflict and tension can be difficult to create and maintain. You don’t need an all-powerful super villain to oppose your character, but you do need some sort of believable conflict if the reader is going to enjoy your stories.

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Laurie Johnson says, “The best way to create internal conflict is to really dig deep into the character. Think about what’s driving them, what their motivations are, what their background is, what has happened in the past to make them who they are. From this, think about the emotions they would experience when placed in situations that tap into their conflict and bring these out on the page

The most believable conflicts are the ones that grow naturally out of your characters and their situation. Drop your people into the middle of the action and see how they react. Their feelings, their hopes and dreams, their fears — all these will create the conflicts and tension you need to keep your readers hooked.

You don’t need world-shattering conflicts to have a good story. You just need characters who want things.

Cut to the Chase

Ever pick up what looks like a good read, only to drop it after the first couple of pages?

You’ve probably encountered a weak opening – something even an experienced writer can fall prey to. Sometimes it’s hard to decide just where the action really starts, or just how much backstory the reader is going to need.

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Just how do you tell when you’ve been trapped by a weak opening anyway? It’s not as easy as spotting a typo. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to figure it out:

  • When does the tension start? Most of the time, you can skip everything you think you need to add in order to “build up” to the tension. Just start when the main action starts and fill things in later.
  • Does this advance the plot? No matter how much you like a passage, if it’s not absolutely necessary to move the story forward, cut it. If it’s really needed, you’ll find a way to work it in later.
  • Does the reader need this now? Always keep this in mind. Anything the reader doesn’t totally need to know should be saved for later in the story.

The important thing is to hook your audience into the tale. You can amaze them with your eloquence and backstory after you’ve gotten them involved in your characters’ lives.