This FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) is a place for you to find answers to some questions you may have about writing. If you have a question about writing, please email Lisa. She may answer your question and include it here on the FAQ page for others to read and gain her insight on writing.
“I love any excuse to talk about writing, and not only does it inspire me to write, it also teaches me. So feel free to contact me with questions. If I don’t know the answer, we’ll learn it together.” -Lisa Stowe
What’s the best way to learn how to write? English classes? Creative Writing courses?
‘This is my opinion only of course, but first, you learn how to write by putting your butt in the chair and writing. At that point you are learning what works for you, like writing in quiet or to music, writing at night or early mornings. You’re trying on ‘voices’ to find yours. You’re listening to that inner story. You’re learning to write.
Second, once you’ve been actually writing, you then have to learn the craft of writing. Craft involves story arc, plot, structure, pace, tension, character development – all the ‘bones’ underlying the skin of the story, that supports the tale. Craft is learned through the revision process. Here is where the outside world steps in. Writing groups, critique groups, trusted friends, books on writing, and yes, classes, if that works for you.
First though, you just have to put pen to paper. There’s a huge difference between learning to write and learning the craft of writing.
Words of caution: Don’t get so caught up in learning the craft that you forget to actually write.’
A friend said that I need to outline before I write. This is the first thing I’ve ever written and now I’m afraid I’m doing it wrong.
‘First, a lot of writers do outline, but there are just as many organic writers who don’t. Part of beginning to write is learning to listen to yourself. What works for someone else doesn’t necessarily work for everyone. Learn to walk away with advice that inspires you, and leave behind advice that blocks you. This of course will be learned through trial and error, but it’s important to start listening now.
Second, there are many kinds of outlining. Stop thinking of the outline with Roman numerals you learned in school. Some writers use that. Some use recipe cards tacked to cork board that they move around like jigsaw puzzles. Some have a vague ‘daydream’ that works like a compass pointing north, but without the linear detail of a typical outline. Some draw mandalas with different colors for plot threads or characters, giving them a visual outline. Just because you don’t outline in the traditional sense doesn’t mean you may not be outlining in another sense. Again, this is a ‘learn what works for you’ process.’
My sister wanted to know what my book was about so I told her and now it’s like I’m blocked or something and I just can’t get back into writing. What happened?
‘Stephen King says in his memoir ‘On Writing’ to write with your door closed and edit with the door open. I have always found that to be excellent advice. In the creating phase, you need to have quality alone time with your story. If you share too much, too soon, it’s like the story has been told, and it goes away, never to make it to paper, and that sounds like what might have happened here. Of course there are writers who can share every detail without any impact to creating, but from your question I’d guess you’re not one of those. For now, I’d suggest walking away from the story for a bit, to let it simmer on a back burner. I doubt it will be long before that simmer starts to bubble up again. There’s always the chance that you never will return to this particular story, and that happens to all writers. It may be that you have to leave it and start another version, or a completely different story. But give it a bit of time first.’
What’s the most common reason for writer’s block?
‘There are tons of resources out there on writer’s block, what causes it, and how to fix it. But this is a very personal thing that most writers figure out on their own as they learn their process. Personally, I’ve found when I’m blocked it’s because I’ve given away too much, too soon, either regarding the plot or the character development. If you tell the whole story in the first chapter, what’s left? Another common thing for me is when there isn’t enough plot, enough characters, or too-few subplots to carry the story idea.
For some people daily stress can cause writer’s block. Or if there is too much time between writing episodes, so when you do sit down to write you’ve lost the thread and are no longer as immersed in the story as you need to be. For some, the story simply just dies. Or for some (and this has also happened to me) the writer goes down the wrong road, in a direction the story or the characters don’t want to go. Typically when that happens, besides feeling blocked, there are also feelings of no longer liking the story, or a lack of excitement about the idea.
What I end up doing when I’m blocked, is going back to the point where I still liked the story, and starting over from there. I usually end up realizing I went the wrong way. If I’m blocked because I don’t have enough to support the story, I start looking at what the protagonist wants more than anything (internal or external) and how I can keep her from getting that. It gives me more conflict, potentially more subplots, and sometimes, more characters.’
My son told me I have way too much description. How do I know?
‘If you’re still in the first rough draft, don’t worry about it. At this point you’re simply capturing the story and getting it on paper. All the rest will be taken care of in your revisions and editing.
Marjorie Lawson has an online editing course called EDITS. While, to be honest, a large portion of that course didn’t benefit me, she has a brilliant way to find out if you have this problem. You print out the story and sit down with a pack of highlighters. Each story element is assigned a color. For example, description might be green, dialog might be blue, action red, internal reactions a different color. You get the idea. After you are done highlighting the heck out of the paper, you step back and look at color. If you see huge swathes of green with no other colors mixed in, you have too much description. Or if you have swathes of blue with nothing else, your dialog needs to be broken up with beats, description, internalization, physical and emotional reactions, etc.
A side note here – I heard an author of historical novels once say that before the Internet, readers needed more description. The world was limited then, and many people never traveled out of their community. These days, with the Internet and the ease of travel, people are much more worldly. So they only need a brief description to set the mood, to ground them in a specific area. Think about the novels of past centuries and how they would have pages of descriptive narrative. That would bore many readers today.’
How do I know if I’m starting the book in the right spot?
‘You may not be. And you may not find this out until the first draft is finished and you’re starting to revise. While the beginning is extremely important as it has to accomplish so many things, it’s also the least important when you are writing the first draft. So worry about the beginning when revising.
With that said, a general rule of thumb is to start at the point of change for your protagonist. Everything before that moment of change is backstory. And that moment of change is the point where that main character is set on the path of the story.
Author Susan Schreyer will tell you that when she wrote her first book, ‘Death By a Dark Horse’, she had to delete the first three to five chapters because she realized where the beginning actually was during that revision process.’
How do I find a name that sounds like a bad guy? I have the villain but can’t find the right name.
‘I can’t tell you how many times I hear this question. Or variations of it, such as ‘Can you give me a good name for the antagonist?’ This is going about it backwards. The name does not create the character. The character creates the name. This is aging myself a bit here, but back in the 1970s, the name ‘Ted’ didn’t become creepy until Ted Bundy. Same with ‘Charles’, and Charles Manson. Name the character whatever you want. The character will give life to the name.
Now, if you’re just having problems deciding on a name, you can check out Baby Name books, or go online and search for something like ‘popular 1980s boy’s names’. Or if you need an ethnic or cultural name, search for ‘Native American boy’s names’. Or ‘girl’s names that mean joy’.
Personally, I give all my characters names that have a secret meaning for me, or for friends, long-time readers, or family. I like the idea of creating an ‘inside joke’ in a way. Or an inside nod to someone special. Or an inside nod to someone I can’t stand!’
Can you give me an idea? I want to write a book but can’t come up with any ideas.
‘Nope. Sorry. It can be challenging enough to come up with ideas for my stories, let alone anyone else’s. Seriously though, it’s your book. It needs to be your idea. It needs to be something deeply personal that excites you and inspires you to write. Some people ask this question out of laziness because they want the whole complete plot handed to them so they don’t have to do any work. Others ask this because they haven’t yet learned how to listen to their inner voice. Watch the world around you. Eavesdrop on conversations out in public. Watch how people interact. Start asking yourself, ‘what if…’ as in ‘what if she’d said this instead?’ ‘what if he did that?’. Those things lead eventually to tiny seeds of ideas that will germinate into a story.’
Do I need to know the theme before I write the story?
‘No. Some writers have an idea of theme at the beginning, but that’s rare. Typically you won’t uncover the theme until the story is done and in the edit/revision phase. As you edit you will start to see the thing that holds the story together. But don’t worry if you don’t. An editor can also help you tease out the theme. Sometimes that theme is subconscious. A theme isn’t necessary to writing the story.’
What’s the difference between theme and premise?
‘There are as many answers to this as there are writers. Basically, the way I interpret it is this. Theme is the invisible thread that ties all the subplots, plot, character action, etc. together. It can be related directly to a specific story, or it can be an invisible thread that ties all your separate stories to you as the writer. Something that speaks to you and comes out in your writing. Premise on the other hand, is tied directly to the conclusion of the story, and proves why everyone just did what they did. Typically the theme can be demonstrated in just a few words, while the premise takes full sentences.’
Do I really have to write a thousand words a day? (Similar question: Do I really have to write an hour a day?
Of course not. Avoid all writing resources, editors, teachers, fellow writers, and anyone else who says you have to do something a specific way. Writing is deeply personal and what works for one won’t work for another.
With that said, don’t hang around waiting for the muse to suddenly sprinkle you with inspiration that makes your fingers tingle to write. The muse is attracted to work. If you don’t write often enough, you’ll lose the thread of the story. What is ‘often enough’ depends on you. I write on weekends. During the week I’m too busy and too tired. A friend writes every morning before work. I avoid talking to her about that morning habit because it invariably makes me feel inferior.
And don’t use those kinds of requirements as an excuse to not write. ‘Well, I don’t have an hour today so I can’t write’. The act of writing is all that’s important, not rules imposed by what works for others.’