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.