Frequently asked questions by writers


How does one become a published writer?

By writing. I don’t say that to be a smart aleck, but because too many writers spend too much time talking about writing, thinking about writing, dreaming about writing, taking classes about writing, attending workshops about writing and don’t sit down and write. Just start wherever you are. Move the pen. If you had six months to live, what story would you tell? Start there.

Do you ever get writers block?

I’ve been working professionally as a journalist since 1986. Journalists have to write on daily deadlines, regardless of whether the muse decides to show up or not. So you strap yourself into the chair and type, whether you “feel” like it or not. On days when I feel blank, I tell myself: It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it has to be completed, so get busy. Then I look at the clock and set a challenge: I pick a random time and tell myself, that’s my deadline and the race begins. No matter how it looks when I’m done, I know it’s the best I could do at the time.

How does someone get an agent?

First, start by writing the book you are most passionate about, the book that is burning a hole in you to write.

Then, look for an agent. Skim books like The Guide to Literary Agents. Or go to the bookstore or library and scan all the books you like or books that are similar to yours. Check the acknowledgements for all the people they thank and jot down the names of all the agents you find.

What worked for me was to befriend local authors. One generously opened the door to his literary agency.

Once you have the name of an agent, sit down and write the three paragraphs you would want to see on the jacket of the book. Then send a short cover letter to the agent including those three graphs.

Do you make an outline?

I brainstorm on paper. An outline is too linear, too rigid for me. I put the central key words in the center of a blank sheet of paper, then let my mind go everywhere with it. I make a big spider web of ideas and let my mind race down every path. Then I collect the pieces and decide where they fit. I get another blank sheet of paper and draw an arc: where will the story start and end? Where will it climax? What goes in the middle?

What is your editing process like?

For the columns, I write them then take them for a walk and read them aloud to hear how they sound. Then I rewrite them and send them to my editor, Barb, a real gem. Then they go to a copy desk of talented editors who have saved me from myself many times. For the books, I have a Dream Team that consists of my husband, daughter, siblings and friends. My husband is a great editor. A true Virgo, he’s a perfectionist in all ways. (He married me, right?) He grows giddy when handed a red pen. My pages come back with stars, underlines and exclamation points. Then I scrape my ego off the floor and get back to the desk to rewrite. The final version goes before my Dream Team for review.

What books have helped you most as a writer?

Nearly every book has helped me as a writer. I absolutely love words. Reading fills the well of me back up. The poetry of Billy Collins, Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry. The writing of Elizabeth Berg, Tim O’Brien, Ray Bradbury, Antoine de Sainte Exupery, Alice Walker, Sue Monk Kidd, Thrity Umrigar and Sarah Willis.

The classics: Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury, Flannery O’Connor, Thoreau and Emerson. Two writing books helped immensely: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King and Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott.

What’s a typical day like for you when it comes to writing? Where do you write?

I write everywhere. The bed sheets are covered with ink. We bought a dark couch so the ink stains won’t show. Every shirt I own has ink marks. I’m like Charlie Brown with a pen.

Mostly I write at my desk. Every day I sit down and move my fingers. I finally learned that it doesn’t matter how I feel, whether or not inspiration hits or not, what time I wake up, what the weather is like outside. I write no matter what. But never while listening to music with words. It scrambles my brain.

It’s so hard to complete a book. Where did you find the time to write newspaper columns, host a weekly radio show and write a book?

Everyone has 24 hours in every day. It’s how we use them that matters. Author Sarah Willis once said she started writing novels after she gave away her TV. I still have the TV but rarely watch it. Probably two hours a week, max. That’s it. That frees up hours and hours every week to write.

What’s your best advice to deal with rejection?

Don’t take no for an answer. In 7th grade I wrote and read aloud my first real story. I laughed to cover my nervousness and the teacher berated me in front of the class. Ouch. I tucked my tales away and didn’t tell them for years.

My first 30 letters to get an internship at a newspaper were rejected. My first two proposals to write newspaper columns were rejected. My first two manuscripts were rejected.

Make peace with rejection. Don’t take it personally. Don’t believe everything the critics tell you. I have a sticky note on my computer to remind me: “God will not have His work made manifest by cowards.” Feel the fear and write anyway.