Q. Do writers get ideas for their stories from real life?
A. Absolutely! From their own real lives. From the real lives of their relatives, friends, neighbors, fellow students,
co-workers, and even their pets. From the real lives of strangers they read or hear about in the news.
Q. Wait a minute! The story of The Three Little Pigs wasn't from real life. Pigs don't
talk, after all.
A. Details were changed, such as their being pigs with speaking abilities and carpentry skills. But think about the
pigs' different characteristics, from hard working to rather lazy. Don't you know people like that in real life? Even if we
write about space aliens, they must have real characteristics that readers can relate to.
Q. Why do writers change details?
A. If you're writing fiction based on real life, it's a good idea to change details for a few reasons.
You don't want to embarrass real people. And you don't want them to sue you! Also by changing things, you can often make a
more interesting and logical story. (Mark Twain supposedly said, "The difference between fiction and nonfiction is that fiction
must make sense.")
Q. What if you're writing nonfiction? Can you change details then?
A. In my opinion, if you're presenting your story as nonfiction, you should change very few details. Of course, you
can't include everything that ever happened to the people in their real lives. Your book would be bigger than an unabridged
dictionary, and people would need a wheelbarrow to lug it around! But if you must change much to make it a good story, it
might be more fair to write it as fiction rather than calling it nonfiction.
Q. How do you make a good fictional story from something real?
A. You ask lots of questions, especially "What if...?" For example, you hear on the news about a dog that was lost
and found its way home after many weeks. You think, What if another family adopted the dog during the time it was lost?
What might happen then? What adventures and misadventures might the dog have had? What if the animal had been a cat instead
of a dog? What if...? You make up answers to your questions, and soon you have a fictional story even though you got the
idea from "real life."
Q. My teacher tells us to outline our stories before we write them. Do you do that?
A. Different writers work differently. And the same writer may work differently on different stories. I like to know
where my story is going before I write it, but rather than making a formal outline, I usually make a list of the characters
and events I want to include. However, if your teacher tells you to make an outline before you write, that is definitely what
you should do. She is helping you learn to become organized, and outlining is a valuable skill to learn. I do know how to
outline, thanks to a teacher of mine named Mrs. Skillestad.
Q. I like to write stories, but I don't like to go over them again to make them better. Don't
you hate that part?
A. Many writers agree with you, but I enjoy the editing process the most. When I have my story written, and I have
something to tweak and improve, that's the fun part. And it's really fun to see the story becoming better and better!
Q. What kinds of things do you improve?
A. The answer to that question could fill a book! In fact, it has. Many books. So I'll try to be brief and mention
just a few things. Of course, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Tightening by taking out unnecessary words, descriptions,
explanations, and even characters. Adding scenes, if needed, to make things more clear and more interesting.
Q. Shouldn't you have done all that the first time?
A. Not necessarily. The first time (writers call that the first draft), it's most important to get the story down.
If you're thinking too much then about getting everything exactly right, you might interrupt the flow of your story. And that
could make your story stiff, or you might get stuck and never even finish it.
Q. So your second draft is perfect?
A. You're so funny. No, I edit a story many times, as do the other writers I know. One thing that helps is to put it
away for a while. When you come back to it, you can view it with a "fresh eye" and see things, both bad and good, that you
didn't notice before.
Q. I like to read, but sometimes I see errors such as in spelling or a word written twice like
this this. How does that happen?
A. I wish I knew. After publishing Hold On, Jessica, Don't Let Go, I've become much more forgiving of errors
I see in published books. Somehow, at least one of those rotten little critters seems to sneak into a book in spite of the
most careful editing!
Q. What do you do when you can't think of anything to write?
A. Some people find that reminding themselves of some chore they could be doing instead of writing gets their mind
to think of something to write in a hurry! :) Check newspapers, magazines, and books. Ask that important question, "What if...?"
What if things happened quite differently? What if your dog meows instead of barks? What if your best friend turned out to
be from another planet? What if you had to change places with your teacher or even your pet? Another idea that might help
is to make a list of words that don't seem to have anything to do with each other, and then make up a story using all those
words. A writing teacher once gave me such a list. At first I thought the assignment was dumb, but I ended up with a pretty
good story. Last, but not least, what things are important to you? Write about them.
Q. Check books and magazines? Do you mean copy their stories?
A. No! That's called plagiarism and is very bad. I suggest you go to these sources only for ideas. For example, I
read a story in a magazine about a young person whose mom was trying to quit smoking. That gave me an idea to write a story
about a father trying to lose weight. As I began writing it, my story took on a life of its own and was quite different from
the story that gave me the idea. I called my story, "Pop, the Reluctant Dieter,"
and the same magazine published it.
Q. What do you do when you have so many things to write about that you can't choose?
A. Write your ideas in a notebook. Then pick one and save the others for another time. Some you may never write about,
but that's okay. You don't have to decide now. Begin writing about the one you chose. Later you can pick one of the others.
Many writers keep an idea notebook. It's helpful, as "great ideas" have a way of getting lost if they're not written down.
Q. Give us a list of words to make a story from. Please.
A. Okay. Here goes:
chair, gum, horse, mouse, cold, umbrella, mountain
(I knew you'd think it was dumb. But try it.)
Q. What if you have a great idea but can't seem to get it on paper because it takes so long
to get it on paper, and you want to get to the plot very fast.
A. In that case, I'd suggest just writing the plot first while it's on your mind and you're excited about it. You can
always fill in details and subplots (if any) later. As I indicated in a previous answer, while writing your first draft, don't
be concerned about things such as grammar, spelling and content details. JUST GET IT DOWN. You can fill out the story (and
make corrections) later. For example, you might write your plot in a page or two. However, later after you've expanded your
story, you might have nine or ten pages.
Sometimes when expanding one's story, one's characters might seem to have minds of their own, telling the writer what they
want to do! That's great fun when it happens. However, the writer then needs to decide whether to go along with the characters
or to rein them in.
Q. If I had a novel ready to publish, which book publisher would you suggest I submit my story
Q. You need to check out different publishers (study a recent Writer's Market or go to writersmarket.com) to learn
which publishers might be appropriate for your particular story. However, even before that, make sure your manuscript is
as good as it can be. Join a local writers critique group, and/or join an online writers community. If you write for children,
you might want to check out SCBWI (see the Links page on this site.) SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS by Browne and King is
the best book of its kind, I think.
Many authors now publish their work as electronic books as well as, or even instead
of, paper books. So be sure to learn about those options too.