Frequently Asked Questions
Often, when people learn that I’m a writer, they ask questions, which I appreciate. I’m never quite certain, however, whether they are truly interested in my answers or whether they are simply being polite.
Given that you clicked on the “FAQ” tab, though, I’ll assume you are among the truly interested. So read on for answers to the questions I'm asked most often . . .
Question: Where do you get your ideas?
Answer: It’s an easy answer, almost a cliché, I suppose, but I get my ideas from anywhere. Literally anywhere. I could be watching a movie or TV, reading a book or a magazine, hearing a song, walking through a park or subway station . . . I’ve gotten ideas in all these ways and many more. I see, hear, or read something and it sparks that ever-important “What if?” question in my mind. The idea I come up with might have very, very little to do with what I’ve heard or read. I just need a spark. Sometimes I get an idea because I misheard or misread or misunderstood something. I might read the synopsis of a book or see a trailer for a movie, and before I get very far into it I’ll think I know where the story’s going to go, only to find that it’s actually something completely different from what I was expecting. And so what I was expecting becomes my own idea for a book.
Most often, though, it’s simply a “What if?” question that suddenly pops up from my imagination. I’ll walk by someone on the street and suddenly think, “What if he did X or Y.” Or I’ll be walking in a park and think “Imagine if I saw such and such right there hanging from a tree or lying in the bushes.” I’m not sure where these thoughts come from but I’m glad I have them.
Question: Do you work from an outline?
Answer: Yes, but not a terribly detailed one. I usually know the beginning and I almost always know the ending (though sometimes the ending changes as I write). But I feel lost without having a good idea where I’m starting and where I’ll end up. Also, before I actually start typing words on the screen, I need to know the story’s major plot points.
Again, sometimes they change. I’ll add some, delete some, and certainly retool some, but I need to know that things are going to happen on this journey, things that I think others will find interesting, entertaining, or exciting. I think of my outline as a road stretching out before me. I know where I’m standing at the start and I know what’s at the end of the road. I think of the major plot points as mile markers along the way. I know that I have to get from the beginning of the story to that first marker — that first big “moment” — and it’s all the slightly smaller stuff that happens in between that I don’t usually know until I start writing. Then, once I’ve reached that first marker, I think about how to get to the second one. And so on.
Question: What do you like to read?
Answer: I read more fiction than nonfiction. While I do read nonfiction purely for pleasure, more often I read it either for research or because I think it might spark a story idea or plot point or something like that. With respect to the fiction I read, I often read the kind of books that I write, though not usually when I’m actively writing. As far as specific authors whose works I read, I’m far more comfortable listing dead authors because I’m very unlikely to ever meet them and have to explain why I left them off this list. Mark Twain is my favorite, with Charles Dickens a close second. And I like many of the classics. Now, with respect to living authors I most admire, I may be unlikely to ever meet them, either, but you never know. So I’d rather not say.
Question: Do you have a favorite book?
Answer: If the question means, do I have a favorite book that I’ve written, I’ll resort to the old writer’s chestnut that my books are a little like my children (but, though equally demanding, they are not quite as cute as my kids) and I love them equally (though maybe for different reasons).
However, if the question means, what’s my favorite book by another author, I can answer that. Before I do, I’ll say that I have plenty of favorite books (as opposed to my all-time, very favorite book). Among my favorites are several of Mark Twain’s books, as well as several by Charles Dickens. And I love Watership Down, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the first Tarzan book. As for contemporary fiction, again, there are so, so many.
But if you want to know my all-time favorite book . . . it’s Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. I was forced to read it in the seventh grade and nothing my teacher told us about it in advance had me looking forward to opening the cover. Once I did, I was hooked on the very first page. I’d never been so moved by a book. And I knew I was reading something important, and not just because my teacher had said it was.
I’m not sure how many times I’ve read Mockingbird from cover to cover – it’s at least half a dozen — but I do know that every now and then I find myself needing to read it again. And I love it every time. Oh, and I’m nuts for Where the Wild Things Are because it’s a great story, succinctly told, beautifully illustrated, and it’s downright scary.
Question: Do you picture specific people as you write your characters, either people you know or celebrities?
Answer: Definitely not. I see my characters very clearly in my head, but I never base them on either famous people or “real” people (which are not always the same, in my experience). Now, after I’ve written the first draft and my wife is reading it, she’ll invariably say, “You know who I picture as so and so?” Then she’ll give me the name of a famous actor. Frankly, she usually makes great choices, which tells me that I’ve described the character sufficiently to get my vision of him or her across to my reader.
Question: How do you research?
Answer: I start with the Internet, as so many do these days. Though I have to double- and triple-check important facts learned from the web, the Internet is still a great way to get the broadest possible information quickly. (Where else can you learn, e.g., in just five minutes, what constellations can be seen in the night sky over Ohio in October?) I also go to my local library, because sometimes there’s just no substitute for feeling that book in your hands. Plus, I just like the way libraries feel, the way they smell. For me, research also includes visiting locations, if possible. I often write about nearby places, so I can visit many of them. Another valuable research source is the interview if I’m lucky enough to find someone willing to talk. It’s always pleasantly surprising to me how much people are willing to talk about things they do or know, as long as they feel they can trust you to be fair when you write.
Question: How long does it take you to write a book?
Answer: That’s tough to say. It varies widely, based on the kind of book, the level of research required, whether I start writing during the school year (when I have plenty of time to write) or the summer (when I have a bit less because the kids are around more). Usually, though, after I come up with the concept, I spend a few weeks kicking it around like a tin can, thinking about it, doing preliminary research, looking at it from all angles. If it holds my interest for a few weeks, I think I may have something. Then I start researching in earnest. After a month or two, I’m usually ready to start putting words on the screen. The first draft typically takes five or six months, I’d say. Then my wife reads it, making notes in the margins, catching things I should have caught myself. Then I revise it a few times before sometimes showing it to my agent. He gives me feedback and I tweak it. Then we submit to my publisher and a different timeline starts…developmental edit, copy edit, proofread…all while the cover is being designed and promotional text drafted. Then I’m finished. In the end, it probably takes about a year to write a book. Hmmm, I guess I could have simply said that from the start, huh?
Question: When do you write?
Answer: Whenever I can. I don’t have a “day job,” other than caring for my sons, so when they’re at school (or, I’m not proud to admit, watching TV), I’ll write. I also write at night when everyone else is asleep. And my wife generously helps me find additional time to write now and then on weekends or in the evenings. I will say this, though: I try to write every weekday, usually for at least four or five hours if I can. And when I can steal some time, I write a bit on the weekends until I’m needed to participate in a lightsaber duel or a game of kickball.