Writer FAQ

Answers to common questions we all have

Writers of all ages, this is the place for you! You’ll find tips, advice, questions, and answers about writing. I have categorized the questions so you can skim through and see which questions fit your current situation.

For inspiration and motivation, search my Blab-o-Denise blog to find posts related to this topic to help you make writing a priority in your life.

Happy writing!!!


Writing Tips

#1 Read – Read everything you can, especially stories or books that are similar to what you are writing. If you like fantasy, read fantasy. I believe reading lets me absorb the beauty and rhythm of good writing, not copy it, and makes my own writing better. (Some writers don’t think this is a good idea because they are afraid the other writing will taint their own. If you feel the same way, don’t read. But if you find that reading similar books sparks your creativity, as it does for me, go for it!)

#2 Write – Writing is like anything else–you’ve got to practice. Set up a schedule that works for you. Some will say write every day, some will say write so many pages a day. No one formula works for everyone. Find your own.

#3 Revise – This is my favorite part–revising over and over until it’s right. Rarely is it great the first time out. Rework it. Don’t just change a few words or move sentences around. Every scene should either advance the plot or reveal character, preferably both. I’ve thrown out entire chapters and even started a book completely over, pulling in scenes I’d written before or later on. It’s hard to give up something you love–great dialogue or a funny description–but if it isn’t working for the story, you’ve got to say bye-bye to it.

#4 Get Feedback – Join a writer’s group, take a writing class, or ask other writers to look at your work and give you honest feedback. You should be asking them questions like: Are the characters believable? Interesting or unique? Do they speak and act true to their character? Where were you confused? Amused? Cheering? Crying? Bored? These questions will help identify weaknesses in your story. They should also tell you where the story and characters are working so you know what you’re doing right and can learn from that. (See the FAQs for Giving Good Feedback.)

#5 Don’t Be Afraid to Write Poorly – That’s what revision is for. Just get your story down on paper. Try to get all the way to the end. If you’re one of those that has to “fix as you go,” try not to do so much that you can’t make it to the end. Remember, you can make the story rock later. (I confess to being a Fix-as-You-Goer and I try really hard to go forward, making notes about something I think of, rather than going back and losing my momentum).

How do I start my story?

Ah, beginnings. There’s all kinds of advice out there about where to start and if you read a lot of books and stories, you know that different writers start at different places. The story usually dictates where you will start. If it’s a more involved story, perhaps we’ll need some back story, a little bit about what happened to bring the character to this point.

Or, you may start in the middle of the action (this is one of my favorite methods as a reader, as well as a writer). Get the reader right into things – an argument, a discovery (something literally found or perhaps a discovering about another person or the character him or herself), a revelation of some kind. And it’s a great idea to start writing a scene or two that you feel ready to write. Perhaps one of those will start to feel like the beginning, a place to open the story. If not, and you can get to the end of the story or book, then by then you should have a good idea of where to begin and you’ll go back and write your opening.

My main character has two love interests. I’m not sure who she should end up with.

This is a very interesting dilemma! My guess is that you don’t know your main character quite well enough yet and that is why you are struggling. In a situation like this, your character should be leading you in the direction that makes the most sense for him/her. The other thought is that perhaps the two characters are too similar? If there aren’t distinct differences between them, I could see why it would be hard for her to choose (or for you to decide as the author).

I suggest taking a good look at the two guys first and see if they are similar or pretty different. If they are different in terms of how they see the world and what’s important to them, then you need to go back to your main character and get to know her better. What are her goals and wishes for a relationship? What does she need in a relationship? If she really needs and wants someone she can trust and talk to, which guy is more likely to be there in that way for her?

Getting relationships right in a book can be hard but it all goes back to knowing your characters and allowing them to take you to the places they want to go.

How do I make my characters more interesting?

Try not to copy characters you’ve seen in movies or on television. Make your characters unique in some way. Think of people in your own life. What makes you roll your eyes at your mom? Why do you think that kid in your science class is weird? Add these traits to your own characters.

How can I make my young adult story realistic without using profanity?

The language characters use depends on who they are. There are many, many books out there with 12-13 year old characters and those characters don’t swear. Just go with the characters. And if you find there is a character who might say the occasional cuss word, you don’t have to use a cuss word. You can just say, “She swore.” Or “He used words that would have grounded me for a week.”

Your characters will always dictate how they speak so don’t worry about whether your characters will seem real if they don’t swear. There are lots of kids who don’t use cuss words and if you make us care about your characters, they will feel real, whether they cuss or not!

How do I pick a name for my character?

Because I write mostly contemporary fiction, I use my kids’ school directories and yearbooks for a lot of my names. What a great resource they are! But if you are writing science fiction or fantasy, you may want to check out other resources. A friend of mine who writes fantasy often looks to names from the middle east and modifies them to fit her books. You may also look at the names other writers use for their stories and get a feel for the sound and flavor of them. If the meaning of a name might be important, you can check out sites like Babynames.com and Behindthename.com and search for the meaning to see a list of names.

How do I add details to my story or know which details to add?

If by details you mean descriptions of characters or locations, or actions of a character, choose only those details that will tell us the most about a character, location, relationship, etc. It’s more important (and more interesting) that we know your character is a little paranoid than that he has brown hair or that we on a hot, windy beach and not inside a cramped closet. But remember to show us the details in what the character says and does, rather than just saying, “Joe was a little paranoid.”

If by details, you mean you feel your story is too short and you want to add stuff to make it longer, stop right there! One of the best pieces of advice I learned is that every word/sentence/paragraph/scene/chapter counts. Each of those elements has a purpose. If you feel your story doesn’t have enough heft, check out Finishing a Story or Book for some things to think about as well as some of the other tabs on this page.

Author Elmore Leonard once said, “Try to leave out the parts that people skip.” In other words, write the good stuff, the stuff that grabs readers’ attention and holds it!

How Do You Decide How To End A Story/Book?

Making decisions about where to end (or begin for that matter) is very critical. Since my books largely deal with relationships, I usually ask myself which relationship is most important to my main character? Which one is she (or he in the current book I’m writing) most invested in? In CLICK HERE, I originally ended the story with Mark. But then my editor at the publisher house pointed out that I had two endings – one with Jilly and one with Mark. That’s when I asked myself that crucial question: which relationship was the more important one for Erin? It was Jilly and their friendship. So I revised it and ended with their relationship, but also with a sense that Erin has come a long way and has a positive direction she is going.

No matter what type of book you are writing, if you can go back to what or who is important to the character, you will probably start to see some ways you can end your book.

If I send you my book or story, will you read it and tell me what you think?

I love to hear that readers are writing their own stories and books! And I wish I could read them all. But unfortunately, I can’t. I just don’t have the time to give it the attention it deserves along with all of my own work. But I would encourage you to find a trusted teacher or a writing class in your area so you can get some feedback on your book or ask other writer friends and maybe even form your own critique group!

If you are a student, consider asking a teacher or check around for a youth writing class. If you are an adult, ask around to find out who else might be writing. Attend writer’s classes, workshops, and conferences–these are goldmines for connecting with other writers. I met the writers in my online group at a conference. I would also encourage you to consider joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) which has the ability for members to search for critique groups in their geographic areas or find groups online.

I do take on a few manuscripts each year as paid critiques, usually not taking on writers younger than 12. You can find out more about getting a critique from me on the Critiques & Consulations page.

I’m stuck on my story. How do I finish?

This is very common. Sometimes you lose interest, or you hit a wall. Here are some things I do:

Go back and read something you liked in your own story or book. Read the first few pages of your story or the first one to two chapters of your book. Or read a scene that you really liked and had fun writing. I do this to see if that gets me excited about the story again and to remind me that I actually am a decent writer! If reading a good scene gets me jazzed up again, I want to keep going so I do. The same could happen for you so go back and read that good stuff!

Write a scene out of order. If you’re a rule follower like me, you may think you have to write your story or book in chronological order. WRONG. There are no rules when it comes to how you write the story or book.

Write what excites you. If you are looking forward to writing a fight scene that happens later or a scene when your main character really tells off the mean girl, WRITE IT RIGHT NOW! Writing a scene you are excited about will get your creative juices flowing and really motivate you to write other parts of the story or book.

Figure out the end of your story. You don’t have to know the exact scene or final line but have a sense of where you want your main character to end up. The best way to do this is to know how you want your main character to grow. For example, in Click Here, Erin starts out insecure and moves toward self-confidence and standing up for herself and what she wants. Because I knew that, I knew that the end she have a scene showing her confidence and feeling better about herself. If you can, write the last scene first so you know where you’re going.

And then what happened? One question I have up on my wall is: And then what happened? If things are slowing down or your losing interest in what you’re writing, it may be that you’re just writing “filler.” Examine the scene. Is there any conflict? Conflict inside the character (she’s really frustrated) or between the character and someone else (he’s fighting with his mother) or a physical challenge to overcome (she has to climb out of ditch with a broken leg to save herself). Conflict drives story. You must have your character overcoming obstacles. If s/he isn’t overcoming obstacles, get those obstacles in there!

Plan it out. I stink at planning my books or pre-writing. I get an idea I’m excited about and want to jump right in and start writing. But I’ve found that I waste a lot of time that way. More than once I’ve written 30-40 pages and realized I don’t have enough story for a whole book. So now I’ve actually started planning before I write–I know, the horror, but it really does help. With the Click Here unsequel, I jotted down every scene I thought needed to be in the book in 1-2 lines and any bits of dialogue or scene conflicts that came to me. It’s also a good idea to put these scenes on index cards so you can shuffle them in any order before you start writing.

Free writing. Try some free writing that has nothing to do with your story. The Internet is full of writing sites that offer writing prompts to help get you started. Sometimes working on something else opens your mind to moving your story forward.

Know when to move on. This isn’t always easy and usually comes with lots of writing practice. If you give up on a story, it may just be because you aren’t willing to invest the energy and time required to finish it. Or it may be the story just isn’t working and you need to put it aside work and on something else. If you find that you can’t finish ANY story or book you start, you may have to look at your own writing practice and your motivation for writing.

I have lots of ideas but after working on one for awhile I get bored with it. Should I keep working on my current story or start working on another idea?

If you are getting bored, that’s either a sign that you aren’t ready to write a complete novel, or that the idea you are working on either isn’t big enough to sustain an entire novel or you haven’t fleshed it out enough. If the new ideas you get are smaller ones that fit with your current book, that’s great that you are able to fit them in. But if you are really wondering where to go with your story, that’s another challenge altogether!

Moving from idea to idea can be the wrong way to go—especially if you would like to actually finish a book! But you also may be trying to find the idea that really grabs you and won’t let go; you are best equipped to answer that.

What I do when another idea pops into my head is write it in my idea notebook—I write down as much as I can—bits of dialogue, scene ideas, etc. Once I’ve got it out, I can go back to my other book and focus again.

I’ve been writing and writing and now I think my stuff is horrible. How do I stay motivated to keep writing?

EVERY writer goes through this, no matter how old they are and how many books they’ve written or published! When I re-read my stuff and think it’s horrible, I just keep going because often the next day, I think it rocks. It’s important to try to push through to the end and then go back and start revising. I do some revising as I write a first draft but I’m really trying to get to the end and save that for the second (and third and fourth and fifth you get the picture) round. Also, go back and re-read sections you particularly like or think really worked. These sections can remind you that you ARE a good writer and you CAN do this!

What should I write about?

Getting ideas and deciding which one you want to write about can be tough! I’m one of those people who has ideas like crazy – my challenge is making the time to write them all.

But if you’re struggling to get an idea or topic, take a while to look around you. Is something happening in your life or in your family that really interests you or has had an effect on you? What about something that happened to a friend? It doesn’t have to be a big thing – it could be a fight between two people that got resolved or resulted in an end to a friendship, or being in a situation you don’t want to be in (maybe helping a neighbor) and growing as a person because of it.

Another good way to get topics is to do what’s called a writing or story prompt. It’s usually the beginning of a sentence that you finish and then you’re usually off and running. You can find some of these online.

Finally, check out the tips I gave to some of the writers in this topic and other topics and check out my Stuff for Writers page.

Where do you get your ideas?

I get my ideas from everywhere – something someone says, something that happened to someone I know or heard about, or asking the question “What if?’ “What if a girl who really depended on her best friend for everything suddenly found herself on a different track than her best friend?”

I want to really show what was going on in my head, but I tend to rush and want to hurry to get it out. What should I do?

I know what you mean about rushing to get everything out. That’s actually a good thing for a first draft. Just get the basic storyline down; then use revision to fill out the scenes. I go through a novel at least five or six times before it’s ready to give to my critique group. Just let yourself get through that “rush” draft and write through to the end. Then go back to the beginning and develop each scene more completely.

How can I make my story more interesting?

Make your characters unique and interesting (see Character). If you’ve already done that, make sure your main character has problems, conflicts. What does Jo want? Now make it very harder for Jo to get it. Conflict is what makes a story interesting. If the characters get everything they want, or get it too easily, the reader is bored. And make sure Jo changes and grows throughout your story — goes from shy to assertive, not caring to caring, etc.

How can I get published?

There are a ton of sites on the Internet, as well as books and magazines that describe how to break into publishing. Before you try, make sure your manuscript is as good as it can possibly be. Then make sure you’re sending it to magazines or book publishers who publish your sort of story. Check out Resources for more information.  Good luck!

Was it easy to get your book published?

Click Here was accepted by the first publisher who saw it and they also published Access Denied. But,Click Here was the SIXTH novel I’d written – the other five were all practice and not even close to good enough. And Fact of Life #31 wasn’t a good fit for that publisher and was rejected by a few publishers before Knopf/Random House picked it up.

I read a lot of books, got feedback on my work, revised a TON, attended conferences, did research on which publishers might be interested in my book, sent my work out, and got LOTS of rejections. It’s important to make sure the book is the best it can be because the competition is very fierce. Check out the Writers page on my website for some ideas. I would encourage you to find someone you trust read your novel and give you feedback. Finishing a draft is just the beginning. You really need to get other opinions to see what’s working and what isn’t and then revise before you send it out to a publisher.

I revise or rewrite (that means completely starting over!) each novel at least 10-15 times. Revision means re-visioning your work and in my case, I often remove entire characters, chapters, or plotlines from a book! It’s a long process but worth it.

Should I send my manuscript to every publisher or try to narrow it down?

You definitely don’t want to send out your manuscript to every publisher – this will show you have not done your homework and will not present you as a professional. ALWAYS check publisher online catalogs or bookstores to see what they have published recently, then go read some of these books. See where your book fits. Some publishers only publish nonfiction, or cookbooks, or fantasy novels. You want to make sure you’re targeting the right publishers. Once you’ve got an appropriate list, read the publisher’s writers guidelines so you know how they want to receive material. Some want a query (just a letter giving a brief synopsis of the book – search online for more information on queries).

My book is on a specific topic. How do i find out which publishers might be interested?

You didn’t say whether it was fiction or nonfiction so I will talk about both.

NONFICTION: If you are writing nonfiction (a how to or coping book or something like that), go to bookstore sites and sites like JacketFlap and perform a search on your topic. See what other books have been published on that topic. Read as many of these books as you can so you know how yours is different. There are lots of books that share a topic; the trick for you as a writer is to make sure yours is different and to be able to say why.

FICTION: If you are writing a story or novel and you are passionate about it, WRITE IT FIRST. Do NOT go out and see what novels have been written on the topic. Once you’ve written your story or book, then take a look at what has already been published on that topic (search as described in the NONFICTION answer) so you can speak to those books and let the publisher know why yours is different. Write what you are passionate about.

Should I self publish to avoid so much rejection?

The people I work with in the publishing industry are wonderful and very nice, but it’s definitely competitive and you have to really have the best work possible to even have a chance at getting a book published.

There are pros and cons to self-publishing. Obviously, if you self-publish, you aren’t going to get rejected! But you will have to pay for the cost of getting it printed, etc and do all of your own marketing and selling, which can be very time-consuming. But you also get to keep all the profits!

I prefer going the traditional route because the publisher helps me put out the best book possible through all the steps – revision, copyediting and page proofs as well as sending my books out to get reviews. Books published by traditional publishers get a lot more attention in different places than self-published books, though that is changing. I may consider self-publishing if the book gets a lot of rejections or it’s something I want total control over. But I would pay for all the services my publisher now performs, which means hiring an editor to help me revise, a copyeditor to catch my mistakes, a designer to create the cover and set the manuscript for printing and/or e-books. My readers deserve the best book I can possibly give them so these services would be imperative.

So What About E-Books?

This is becoming more and more popular as the cost for creating a good e-book comes down. You can find resources online on how to format your manuscript for the different platforms (Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Sony Reader, etc) or pay someone or a company to do it for you (sometimes they will take a percentage of every sale). Again, if I went this route, just like if I self-published, I would pay for all the services my publisher now performs, which means hiring an editor to help me revise, a copyeditor to catch my mistakes, a designer to create the cover and set the manuscript for printing and/or e-books. My readers deserve the best book I can possibly give them so these services would be imperative.

Will using profanity in a young adult novel prevent it from getting published?

We know that many young people use profanity and if it fits with the characters, an author will include that in his or her book. However, some publishers shy away from using profanity in books targeted at younger readers because many schools won’t carry them in their libraries so the publisher loses sales. Even if your book is about a 6th or 7th grader, readers as young as 8 or 9 might read it, as was the case with Click Here, which was marketed as a book for 8-12 year olds, though I recommend it for 5th grade and up. My publisher asked me to change some profanity I had in the book (spoken by Erin’s older brother, Chris) because of my audience. I agreed, as it didn’t really make that much difference to me. If it had, I would have fought for it.

What is theme?

Theme is a universal idea that we take away from a book; often an experience that most, if not all of us, can relate to. It may be a life lesson or a deeper understanding of the human condition or something else. The theme often comes from how the main character grows or changes in the book, but not always.

How do I figure out the theme of a book?

What did you take away from the book when you finished it? If you can answer that question, you have probably discovered the theme of the book. You should be able to support the theme using examples from the book – scenes, dialogue (internal and between characters), etc.

You can find more detailed descriptions of themes and sample themes online.

How do I deal with writer’s block?

Here are some of the ways I power through when I feel stuck:

Keep Writing. Even if I’m writing “I’m stuck. I don’t know what to write. My story is horrible. No one will want to read it.” I just keep writing. This works better with longhand, where I believe the movement of pen or pencil across paper can sometimes have the effect of jumpstarting your creativity.

Start in Another Place. I finally gave myself permission not to write my books chronologically and it’s really helped. If you are working on a scene but can’t wait to start writing a scene later in the book, go write the scene you are excited about. And also ask yourself why you aren’t excited about the current scene. No doubt there is something wrong with it. If you’re bored with it, your reader will be too.

Try Story Prompts and Writing Exercises. You can find these in many writing books. Many times writing something completely different from what you are working on can open the floodgates.

If you are spending long periods of time in frustration, you may want to switch stories/books/poems. Leave the current project alone for awhile and move on to something that inspires you.

Read the Writing of Others who are writing what you are writing and know that they had a horrible first draft and that it took many, many drafts (for most of them) to get the writing to where you are reading it at that moment. Absorb the words, the language, the rhythm, then go try to create some of your own.

Connect with Other Writers. If you write for adults, search the internet for organizations that have meetings or conferences and attend them. If you write for children, check out http://www.scbwi.org and find a chapter in your area. Then attend a meeting or a conference. You will find many people who share your joy and frustrations as a writer and it’s always nice to know you are not alone.

Is it hard to be a writer?

The hardest thing for me about being a writer is as much as I love to write, sometimes it’s hard for me to get started. I procrastinate—checking email, doing stuff for the organization that I volunteer for. I’m always telling other writers they have to put writing first and sometimes I don’t do it myself! And there is a lot involved in revising, working through all the stages with the publisher, and then trying to get out there and make sure people know about your books.

Can anyone write a book?

I think just about anyone who can put words together can write a book of some kind—the question is, can they write it WELL? Remember, a writer is someone who writes and you can do that right now. Just start writing! Write your own stories and read lots of books. Becoming a writer is like anything else—you have to practice and practice to get better. If you want to get published at some point, you need to make sure your work is the best that it can be first. So write and write some more. Then revise and see if you can find a teacher or writer who can look at your work and give you feedback to help you make it better. I know lots of people who have ideas for books and never write them, and others who write them but don’t revise or get feedback or try to improve their craft so their books never become what they could be.

How do you choose a title?

For some of my books, the title came right away, just a phrase that popped into my mind. Other times, it started out as one thing and became another. Like Click Here was originally titled My Own Two Feet because part of the theme is Erin standing on her own two feet and standing up for herself. But once the blog came into play, I wanted a more playful title that related to her interest in computers. I was on the Internet and kept seeing the phrase “Click Here” on practically every web page of course, and I said to myself, “That would make a great title for my book!” The subtitle came right away as well.

Sometimes a title may not come to me until I’m finished with a manuscript. Fact of Life #31 was originally called Neighbor Pains but my writer’s group and I decided that it limited the story idea.

If a title doesn’t present itself right away, go ahead and keep writing through to the end. Once you’re finished with your story or book, ask yourself what your theme is. Do any phrases in the story/book reflect that theme? Or if your character is into a sport or music or drama, can you come up with a title that uses words related to that as well as your theme? If the conflict has to do with a relationship with a friend or a sibling, can you come up with a play on words that helps show that? Often a good title is right in the middle of your story. It might be something someone says that is important to the story, or it may be a phrase that your character likes to repeat. Read through it with your theme and conflicts in mind and see if something jumps out at you.

You talk about reading like a writer. What exactly does that mean?

It means reading books in a different way—noticing what kind of person a character is and asking how the author did that. What words did s/he use? How is the character talking so I know s/he is smart/funny/angry etc? The best teachers we have are other authors!

The next time you are reading, note where you really liked something—“wow, I felt sad here” or “this scene was really engrossing”—then ask yourself HOW. How did the author write the scene to make you react that way? How do you know the character is funny or scared or insecure or stuck-up? What did the author do to create those attributes in a character?

For a more in-depth exploration of reading as a writer, search the Blab-o-Denise Writer’s Studio for this topic.

Do you send out review copies to blog reviewers?

I don’t but my publisher does for newer books. Please check the book page for publisher information.

If I send you my book or story, will you read it and tell me what you think?

I love to hear that readers are writing their own stories and books! And I wish I could read them all. But unfortunately, I can’t. I just don’t have the time to give it the attention it deserves along with all of my own work. But I would encourage you to find a trusted teacher or a writing class in your area so you can get some feedback on your book or ask other writer friends and maybe even form your own critique group!

I do take on a few manuscripts each year as paid critiques, usually not taking on writers younger than 12. You can find out more about getting a critique from me on the Critiques & Consultations page.