The Questions Behind the Questions

- by Patricia McLinn

Certain questions crop up whenever aspiring writers have the opportunity to grill published authors. I was reminded of this recently when I taught writing classes through local community education.

What was different for me this time was an added ah-hah! moment: There are the questions that are asked . . . and then there are the questions they really, truly, in the depths of their hearts want answered.

So, here we go. The questions, and the questions behind the questions . . . along with answers.

Where do you get all your ideas?
Conversations, eavesdropping, paintings, cloud-formations, Scrabble words, memories, what-ifs, news stories, half-awake phrases, fortune-cookies.
Do I need to have more than one idea?
To write for your own pleasure or for something to share with friends, one idea works just fine. (And the “one idea” Harper Lee turned into a book certainly has endured.) However, for a career in commercial fiction, yes, you’re going to need more than one idea. However, take a page from sports – one game at a time can build a season, one season at a time can build a career.

What are the themes of your books?
How people heal; how people realize they don’t need to keep themselves in boxes.
OMG, I have to have themes???
Well. Yeah, but don’t get too worked up about it. First, a lot of us don’t focus on themes until the first draft is done. (Or later.) And then it’s not so much creating themes as spotting the little pots of gold our subconscious has dropped in here and there. Honest. Trust the Theme Fairy.

Did you ever want to do anything other than write?
Me? Absolutely not. I have been ever-loyal to the goal of writing from the cradle.
If I’ve ever considered anything else does that mean I am not worthy?
I can’t guarantee you are worthy, but having wanted to be, oh, let’s say a jockey until you became too tall in third grade or – just for another instance – subsequently deciding that being the first woman football coach at Notre Dame was your destiny does not mean that you are absolutely and totally disqualified from writing worthiness.

What’s your workspace like?
Small, book-storage-intensive, hottest-in-the-summer, coldest-in-the-winter, but with windows that show me trees and sky without any potentially distracting street or sidewalk scenes.
(This is a what-they-really-want-to know two-parter)
I don’t really have to work if I don’t have a nice office, right?
Wrong. If you want to write you have to write, even if it’s sitting on an upside down trash can until the rim numbs your derriere. Then you sit on the floor.
But when I start publishing I’m going to have palatial surroundings like I see authors on TV and in movies have, right?
Sure. If you win the lottery.

How did you get started?
Decades of reading, many years in journalism, a few years training for leap from articles to novels, oral pitch at an editor appointment, submitting complete manuscript as requested material.
How on earth am I going to get started???
(Another two-parter: Started in the biz, and started with the wip.)
In the biz:
Unknown amount of time learning sufficient craft to create a sellable manuscript, then through one of several paths of getting your work in front of an editor who might be interested in it.
With the wip: Get the first word down. Then the second. A third . . . and no one can tell you what method of doing that will work best for you. Other writers can tell you what’s worked for us, but no guarantees that will work for you. Heck, there’s no guarantee our method will work for us next time. So we’re all in about the same boat on that ocean.

What’s a typical writing day like for you?
No typical for me. About the only anchor in my schedule is feeding my dog at noon. Beyond that, the answer is my all-time favorite answer for all questions: it depends.
Can I work this writing gig into my life without disrupting my current schedule?
Nope. Oh, okay, I’ll soften that to: Not likely. Not if you really want to write seriously, commercially, productively. Writing is not satisfied with leftover time. It demands to be a major priority. Unless your current schedule has big holes of free time in it, you’ve got some decisions to make.

How long does it take you to write a book?
It depends. On the book; some are shooting down whitewater rapids, others are paddling against a strong current all the way. On when you count as the starting point of writing. Is it getting the first words saved in a file? The first seed of the idea? The experience that starts composting the soil the seed will grow in?
How long will it take me to write a book?
See “It depends” answer above, then add an arbitrary percentage based on how much slower you type than the average published author does.
Can I work this writing gig into my current life without disrupting it for long?
Nope. See “Not if you really want to write . . . ” answer above.

How much money do you make?
If I’m feeling patient with such nosey questions: It depends.
How much money will I make?
(You’ve got to see this one coming . . . ) It depends.

What’s your best advice for aspiring writers?
Read, read, read. Widely, deeply, not always wisely. Then write, write, write.
What’s The Secret to getting published?
No, no, I pant, backing away with index fingers crossed in front of me. Don’t ask me that. Anything but that. I’ll never tell. Never. I’d be hunted down by fellow pubbed authors and die a death of a thousand Black Moments.


  1. I definitely agree with read, read, read.

    And it’s worth noting that according to a national poll a few years ago, there are more people in American who want to WRITE a book than there are people who READ books.

    If you’re not a reader, I think you can probably nonetheless write a (totally unreadable) book and self-publish it.

    But if you’re not a reader, there’s no way you can write a commercially saleable book. That’s like expecting to play major league baseball without knowing anything at all about the sport.


  2. Absolutely, Laura. It’s never made sense to me, either.

    Plus, by reading, a writer gets to learn about storytelling and writing craft by absorption while being entertained.