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Monday, December 8, 2014

Have You Questioned a Writer Today?

During class a few weeks ago, the book I was working on last month somehow came up. Specifically the fact that one of my retellings is a scene from Peter Pan and Tiger Lily is a key character.

Right in the middle of our discussion, one of my students asked, “Is she going to be stuck up? Because she really is in the movie and sort of is in the book.”

I told him I didn’t know, that I wanted to reread parts of Peter Pan again to figure it out.

But, after class, I started pondering his question. Was I going to make Shoshana (my Tiger Lily character) stuck up? What was her personality going to be? Stuck up actually might work…

Then I realized something. Out of the fourteen siblings in this book (yeah, they’re a big family) only four of them aren’t snooty, nose-in-the-air, kind of characters. Naturally, Shoshana was going to be stuck-up. It was a family trait.

And, here’s the thing that really got me about the whole situation- I probably never would have made that connection if Nathanael hadn’t asked. And, while it’s not something I necessarily need to know in order to write this book, it has certainly given me a lot of insight into my characters since I realized it.

All it took was one simple, interested question and suddenly my characters have a whole new level of depth. I understand them better. All because one of my students asked a question.

I think people don’t realize how much we writers want people to ask us questions. We crave it. Yes, we have a hard time explaining what our book is about- but that’s mostly because the only way we know how to explain it is with the long version and we’re scared you aren’t interested enough to listen to the whole thing. We can't sum our pet project up in just two sentences.

So here’s the thing, if you are truly interested, there is nothing a writer likes more than someone who asks about their writing. We like to share what we’re working on, like to talk to people about it and share what we’re investing so much of our time in.

And, if while we’re telling you about it, a question pops into your head, ask it. Ask the question because chances are, we haven’t thought about that aspect yet. We need a fresh perspective looking at things. Because better you ask it now and get a blank stare than after we publish the thing. Because before we publish, we can change it, add to it, make it better.

So, please. Ask questions. Show interest. Writers are no different than the rest of the world- we like talking to people about our passions. And, obviously, those passions include whatever we’re working on at the moment.

That one question, that one random thought asked out of idle curiosity, might just be the key we’re looking for to unlock a whole new layer of our story. Or, it might be the key to discovering a plot hole we didn’t realize needed addressed.

Everything makes sense in our heads (for the most part). Sometimes, we forget that we need to explain it to our readers. We think it’s blaringly obvious why X did that thing to Y. But, we forget that we never told our readers that part of backstory where Y did that thing to X, so to them, it doesn’t make sense after all.

Or, everything makes so much sense to us, that we don’t realize maybe it doesn’t after all. And, maybe when you ask why X did that thing to Y we’ll go, “Oh, hey, I don’t really know… Why did X do that thing to Y?” And, we need that. Because now we know how to make our story better.

And, don’t be discouraged if you ask a writer a question about their story and their answer is, “I don’t know.” Because all that means is they need time to think about it. You’ve presented them with an issue and they need time to ponder how to fix it. That doesn’t in any way mean it was a bad question- quite the contrary! What it means is you’ve stumped us so hard we need more than a few seconds to give you an answer. It means you’ve made us think about our project. And that is never a bad thing.

So, yeah. I can’t say it enough. Ask writers questions. Ask them what they’re working on, ask them those random questions that pop into your head, ask them whatever you’re thinking. Because we love feedback and interest in our stories.

But, I should address (for all the writers who are cringing right now) it’s okay to ask questions and offer insight, but never tell a writer they “should” do something. If a writer is telling you about their idea, please don’t say, “Oh, hey, you should do [insert idea you just came up with].” Either figure out a way to work it into a question, so that the writer comes up with the idea themselves, or offer it simply as an idea. Word it like, “What if you [insert idea you just came up with]?” and accept it if they shake their idea and tell you it won’t work.

Because, I have to be honest, one of the hardest parts about being a writer is having people tell me what I “should” do in my novel and then having them get offended when I politely try to tell them it won’t work. I love it when people offer me feedback and ideas (some of my best scenes and characters have come out of that). But, when people tell me their ideas like they are genius ideas I need to write, it makes things really awkward. Especially when their idea just won’t work with what I have planned.

But, that’s a rant for another day…

Anyway. I think you all have the gist of it. Ask writers questions. Show interest. We want to talk about our projects, we’re just scared you don’t really want us to tell you about them.

How about you? As a writer, do you like people asking you questions about your work? Or, as a reader, have you ever had a chance to talk to a writer about their ideas?

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