10 typical questions from writers (that are really just fear in disguise)

Fantastic guest post from Emma Newman who answers some of the key questions all aspiring writers have when they're starting out on their scribbling journey.

Guest post by Emma Newman
I’ve been writing for many years now. It’s the first thing I think about in the morning, and if I don’t get my daily fix, I’m just hell to live with.

I’m ready to acknowledge my addiction. Oh, hang on, this isn’t the right place for that. Sorry. Suffice to say that my debut novel is at the ARC stage and I am waiting for a launch date from my publisher.

I wrote the first draft of 20 Years Later nearly five years ago, and I started blogging almost two years ago, just as I was trying to decide whether to self-publish or not.

So the (awful) process and subsequent joy of finding a publisher has been written about over at my place for some time now. As a result, I’ve received emails and had Twitter conversations with aspiring writers since I got my publishing deal.

I am not an expert on getting published or even the publishing industry as a whole. I’m a writer who got lucky, and someone who (like most human beings) likes to notice patterns.

In fact the only thing I would say I’m an expert at is making a nice cup of tea.

I used to look for answers to all of these questions myself at varying stages of my writing life, so it’s not intended to ridicule – just to point out that asking these questions are actually very clever ways to avoid doing what you need to do first.

Trying to write the first novel can be overwhelming, bewildering and frustrating. If that sounds like where you are, then read on.

1. How many words should my novel be?

This one, in various guises has come up on Twitter a lot. And in every case, it was asked by someone who hasn’t yet written a book (but really wants to).

Yes, there is some merit in looking at word count once the book is finished, but if it’s your first novel, just writing the damn thing is more important.

The first draft of 20 Years Later nudged 70,000 words. But that was only because I had ended it in the wrong place – and that only became apparent two drafts and several beta readers later. Now it’s approximately 95,000 words – but that doesn’t mean that modern YA books should be the same.

In my humble opinion, the book should be as long as the story demands. Look at Perdido Street Station or Shogun. Both long, both lean and fantastically told.

If it’s 100,000 words and flabby as hell (a certain teen vampire bestseller springs to mind) it should be edited down (and why that one wasn’t I will never understand).

But having an arbitrary word count fixed in your head first seems backwards to me. How do you know how many words it will need until they’ve been written?

2. I have a great idea for a story, how do I find an agent?

Don’t even go there. An idea is not a book. A first draft isn’t even a book.

Having an idea and looking for an agent is like finding out where to sign up for the London marathon when you’ve never even run for a bus.

An idea and the bringing of that idea into the world are very, very different things.

3. I’ve written four chapters now, can you advise me on how I write a query?

See number two. So many agents aren’t interested if it’s your first novel and isn’t more polished than a clumsy child’s single sports trophy.

You’ve a long way to go, and besides, you may not be able to finish it. Or you may realise it’s actually a very different story that you want to write, and thus far it’s been excavation work.

What if you sold the book then realised this afterwards? That’s a one way ticket to Stressville, Idaho I reckon.

4. Is there a market for… (insert genre)?

You’re asking me? I took me four years to get a publisher. It’s my first book. When I wrote it, everyone was looking for the next Harry Potter. This is the first year that I’ve heard of Dystopian YA being ‘hot’ and the books that people are touting as ‘hot’ now were first written years ago.

No-one knows really. Especially not me. And there is no way of knowing what will be popular in a year or two’s time, which is when your book would be coming out if traditionally published.

5. I have so many ideas, I don’t have writer’s block. I just can’t decide which one to write. What should I do?

Actually, I think you do have writers block. Having ideas is not writing a novel. If none of them are reaching the page, then you need to work on the reason why.

That’s what I did. It took many, many years too, so don’t feel bad if it takes a long time. The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron helped me, but there are lots of other books out there.

What it all comes down to is writing one word after another, and a lot of bravery to face the fear that is stopping you from writing.

If you don’t think the avoidance behaviour comes from fear, I would say you are probably wrong, but who am I to know that?

6. Should I write a certain amount of words every day? How many?

This is impossible for anyone to answer but yourself. When I was clawing my way out of a ten year writing block, I read everything I could get my aching fingers on to see how other authors wrote novels. And what did it do? Absolutely nothing.

Oh, it made me feel inadequate, guilty, confused (they all have different systems!) and afraid. Only halfway through writing my second novel did I stumble upon the best process for myself, and that is all it is – the best for me.

It may be that you need something completely different, and the only way you’re going to find out is by, yes, you guessed it, writing and a healthy dose of experimentation with routine, word counts etc.

In case you’re wondering, I write before I do any other work, and don’t stop until I hit 1000 words minimum. As for the whole “shall I outline or just write by the seat of my pants” debate, I wrote about my version of it here, if you’re interested. I often go over that 1000 words and have to force myself to do the work that pays the mortgage.

One day, I hope, they will be one and the same.

Your daily ideal may be 250 words, or you may prefer a time based goal. You may only write well on Sundays after chocolate ice cream.

The only person who can discover that is you.

7. How much money will I earn?

If you’re thinking about that before you’ve written the book, don’t go into fiction writing. You could fit the number of debut authors that pay their mortgage with the income from their first novel into a small dining room in Devon.

Really, don’t write for money. Write because you feel like you might die if that story doesn’t get out of your brain.

8. How long will it take to get an agent/publisher if I start sending queries now?

Blimey. That is impossible to answer, aside from saying it will be twice as long as you think and more agonising than you can imagine.

Cheery, huh?

9. Do I have to write the full book before I try to get an agent?

Yes. See answer to question 3. Don’t even think about agents until that book is complete, gleaming and even then you might not get one anyway.

I didn’t manage to bag an agent, but have a publisher now. And I was a sneeze and a ‘bless you’ from just ignoring them all anyway and going it alone (which I did for my short story anthology after my novel got picked up.)

Write the book first. Then worry about what to do with it.

10. Which writing software do you use and recommend?

I only use Microsoft Word and it irritates the hell out of me. I’m still figuring out the best way to track what I’ve written, and am nearing a workable solution with a clumsy combination of Word, a spreadsheet and post-it notes.

You’d think, seeing as I am now writing my third novel, that I would have found something else – Scrivener or the like – but I’m so fixated on the words, I can’t be bothered to re-learn a new piece of software just to get them out of my head.

Asking before writing the novel may be good forward thinking, but it may also be a distraction tactic, akin to salivating over running shoes before dragging yourself once around the block.

What does it all mean?

No prizes for seeing the message here. Write the book first. Don’t trawl the web looking for help or advice on getting published until the second draft (at least) is done.

Every minute spent trawling the web trying to answer these questions is a minute spent avoiding that terror of writing something that you burn to tell, but know will suck. And it will. That’s what first drafts are for. And the answers to all those questions won’t make it any easier. You writing your first book will.

Good luck, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Image: Jordan Pérez Órdenes

Share your thoughts

Do you recognise some of these questions? Have you asked them yourself or are there some missing from the list? Tell us what you think or fire away in the comments section!


Anonymous 12 October 2010 Reply

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Iain Broome, Rebecca Brown. Rebecca Brown said: RT @iainbroome: 10 typical questions from writers (that are really just fear in disguise) http://t.co/1mXeo9N (by @EmApocalyptic) […]

tom@thebookwright.com 12 October 2010 Reply

What a coincidence – look what I just posted this morning – love your blog !!

marisa.birns@gmail.com 12 October 2010 Reply

Hello, Em! Wonderful advice you’ve shared with us.
The main thing I’m guilty of is reading everything on how other writers write. Enjoying the reading, the research, but it means I’m not writing.

Just sit down and write the damn book, eh? Okay. 😀

lrgiles@cox.net 12 October 2010 Reply

Good stuff, and it can never be reiterated enough.

jane_taylor2@sky.com 12 October 2010 Reply

Excellent stuff and a really enjoyable read to boot!

leah@leahmacvie.com 12 October 2010 Reply

What a great read! I started my book a while ago and one problem I’m having isn’t on this list- “how do you know when your book is done?” I keep finding more and more info I want to include- it’s driving me nuts- needless to say, I don’t feel I’m anywhere near being done. But that’s OK.
For new authors, I think the confusion comes in when there are so many possible routes to publishing a book- and so many people and resources that claim their way is the best way. After reading this article, I am finally back to my original instinct- you just got to finish the book and worry about the rest later.

tom@shoshin.it 12 October 2010 Reply

Very nice and interesting.I sometimes blocked myself asking which would be the best page size to write and which is the one used by writers. Especially thinking at the final printed book. Very annoying and frustrating.
Also the software question is evil 🙂
Thanks for sharing

callanai@hotmail.com 12 October 2010 Reply

Thanks guys, it’s great to see that this resonates!
@Marisa – Oh I know that beast. I was so busy looking for that answer elsewhere to protect myself from just having to find out the hard way.

@Leah – Oh, that’s a good one. Yeah… tricky. It’s kind of similar to the one I had with TYL, in that I had a huuuuge story that was too big for one book and so I knew I had a trilogy on my hands. Working out what to fit into book one was so hard – and I was haunted by the question of whether I had told enough in the first, or too much etc. Urgh. Now I’m worried I’ve got it wrong and it’s too late now. Honestly, writers!

@Tom – Wow, I can see why that would block! And yes, the software thing *is* evil. So evil, I am still using Word as the proverbial devil I know. I’m waiting impatiently for brain downloading tech. (drums fingers)

kswarts@ix.netcom.com 17 December 2010 Reply

Let me know when BDT becomes available, and I’ll use it to create not only books but videos (goodbye to all the hassles of scriptwriting, actor recruiting, and multiple takes).

eeleenlee@gmail.com 12 October 2010 Reply

I can relate to number 7- I may’ve shuffled off this mortal coil if I didn’t write.

n@nicolamorgan.co.uk 12 October 2010 Reply

Well said indeed and every word true. I’ve written quite a lot of (published) books but you’ve nailed everything brilliantly and succinctly, in a way I certainly couldn’t have done at the beginning.
Good luck!

brandydolce@yahoo.com 12 October 2010 Reply

Get out of my head! lol This post cracked me up. I was reading it thinking “Holy moly! I’m not alone!”Thanks for writing this!

iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 November 2010 Reply

Glad you liked the article Brandy – and remember, you’re never alone as a writer. There are many of us out there more than willing to listen for five minutes and then talk about our own work for 20. 😉

susanhiland@yahoo.com 14 October 2010 Reply

If your looking for a better writing program why don’t you try Liquid Story Binder? I use it and I LOVE IT! It tracks how much you write per day, you can set goals for each chapter it has a place for notes as well as a brainstorming area. Very cool program.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 November 2010 Reply

Thanks for the recommendation – I haven’t heard of that one so I’ll have a look and check it out.

cougel@thecougelchronicles.com 20 October 2010 Reply

You said it! I just got an agent after almost four years of writing and rewriting, and then rewrote it 2xs for said agent. I’m sure I will rewrite it again. I love all of your points and think all newbie writers should print this post out and hang it on their computer, or wall, or forehead. And re-read it multiple times. As long as they dont use it as a form of procrastination 🙂

iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 November 2010 Reply

Thank you for the kind comments (on Emma’s article) and congratulations!

tmwaysok@hotmail.com 21 October 2010 Reply

This should be so obvious to writers…”Actually, I think you do have writers block. Having ideas is not writing a novel. If none of them are reaching the page, then you need to work on the reason why. ”
But when we get lost in the idea of writing, it’s so easy to think that we are writing when it’s only daydreaming. Thanks so much for the reminder to keep putting those words down on the page!

iain@writeforyourlife.net 9 November 2010 Reply

That’s a great paragraph isn’t it? And so true. It’s not enough to have ideas, you have to actually carry them through and get something done. The hard bit, if you will.

Shirley.showalter@gmail.com 21 October 2010 Reply

It’s amazing how long it takes to learn all that you have posted above. I’ve been writing as a scholar, teacher, and executive all my life. But creative writing is a whole new world. Thanks for boiling down so many principles of the craft.

callanai@hotmail.com 21 October 2010 Reply

Thanks again guys, so pleased to see this struck a chord.
@tara – that one was inspired by a former work colleague. I speak to him every few months and he enthuses at me about this book he’s going to write. Three years on and there are no words on pages. I asked him if he had writers block and he said “Oh, no, I have plenty of ideas!” hence its inclusion. I am now trying to coax him into addressing why he is so scared to write the book…

iain@writeforyourlife.net 22 October 2010 Reply

Huge thanks to Emma for such a great article and to all your fantastic responses. We’re currently updating the comment system on Write for Your Life, and I intend to return and speak to all of you individually. Not in person though. Don’t panic.

Anonymous 25 November 2010 Reply

[…] 10 Typical Questions From Writers (that are really just fear in disguise) – by Emma Newman on Write for Your Life […]

Anonymous 1 December 2010 Reply

[…] 10 Typical Questions From Writers (that are really just fear in disguise) – by Emma Newman on Write for Your Life […]

kswarts@ix.netcom.com 17 December 2010 Reply

I can particularly relate to #6, as I just finished a 750-word-article assignment on “how writers manage time.” Number of authors consulted with during research period: 21. Number of time management systems described: 21.

johnnyjovi@gmail.com 14 April 2012 Reply

Although it may be years after this post was written, I’ll make an attempt at commenting. I’ve read my fair share of books on writing, and more than enough sites and blogs by and for writers. However, someone actually answering questions simple folk have, is something not easily found.Anyway, here’s my top priority question which was not on the list, and not found anywhere else yet: How can you avoid being a Mary Sue? How can I make myself NOT write about me and my life?

Thank you

iain@writeforyourlife.net 15 April 2012 Reply

Pick a topic that you don’t know much about, do some research and go from there. My novel is about stroke, but I have no first-hand experience. You can be autobiographical without going into detail. Just flashes of reality.

Anonymous 19 April 2013 Reply

[…] In a guest post by Emma Newman in 2010 she asks ten questions of writers, suggesting these are 10 typical questions from writers (that are really just fear in disguise) […]

Anonymous 30 April 2013 Reply

[…] Emma Newman in 2010  asks ten questions of writers, suggesting these are 10 typical questions from writers (that are really just fear in disguise) […]

Anonymous 7 June 2013 Reply

[…] 10 typical questions from writers (that are really just fear in disguise) […]

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