Writing FAQs

How do you write? Do you use a computer? Do you write every day? Do you use outlines?
I started writing in the era of typewriters—in fact, manual typewriters—so my writing process is the same one I used when I was a kid. I write my first draft by hand, chapter by chapter, using a Parker pen and a spiral bound, college-lined notebook. (Depending on the circumstances of my life at the time, I write in libraries, in bookstores, on planes, in hotels, or in my wicker rocking chair at home.) When I complete a chapter, I type it onto my computer, making a lot of changes. I then proceed to the next handwritten chapter. Once I have a full draft, I do revisions on my computer. I also have two computers in the house, one that's connected to the internet and one that's not, thus making it easier to remain disciplined.

For the most part I write for several hours every day. When I'm in first drafts, I might write only three or four hours before I burn out, but in revisions I can easily go for eight to ten hours, assuming I can maintain the energy.

Some writers write detailed outlines, but I tend not to be one of them. My nonfiction has mostly been set in the present, so without a crystal ball it would have been impossible to have used an outline anyway. For fiction, I sketch out a very general progression for the story, though I can't say it rises to the level of an outline since scenes and details remain elusive until the writing presents them to me.

Do you show your work to other people as you're writing it?
When I was a teenager, I would show my first drafts to anyone who wanted to read them, sometimes even allowing friends to read over my shoulder as I was writing. These days, I write in complete privacy for a long time, perhaps over a year, before I feel I've worked a book enough to show it to my first readers, and then only one or two per draft. I've just found that the world I'm creating feels much richer and absorbing to me if no one else is in the book except me. I think of this as being in a bubble, or a tent, and what I find is that, by being in it alone, it just grows bigger and bigger to me. So I don't even tell people, including my husband, what I'm writing, or maybe that I'm writing at all. If anyone asks, I jokingly tell them, "Sorry, I can't say. Management has me under a gag order."

When do you know that a book is done?
First, I take the book through many revisions, addressing every one of my concerns and perfecting the language until the manuscript has gone as far as I can possibly take it. Only then do I show it to my agent. Usually she'll make suggestions for more revision before she submits it to a publisher. Once it's with a publisher, the editor will ask for more changes, sometimes significant, and I'll take it through yet more revision. If this seems like a lengthy process, you're right. All of my published books have taken four years from inception to publication. Writing requires patience.

You used to write fiction, though your last few books have been nonfiction. Will you write fiction again?
I'm working on fiction right now.

How did you break in as a writer? You must have had connections, right?
Actually, I didn't. But I was prepared when the opportunity arose. For the whole story, see the article in Tips on Writing: How I Became And Stayed A Writer.

I have a great idea for a book, but I'm not a writer. Would you write it for me?
I get asked this question with great frequency, and although I love hearing people's stories, I'm not a journalist, co-writer, or ghostwriter, which means I'm not the kind of writer who'd be attracted to such an undertaking. I am a memoirist whose nonfiction comes from my own life, and I am a novelist whose fiction comes from my imagination. If you want to find someone to write your story, I recommend that you either approach a journalist who writes about the topic that's at the heart of your story, or do a search on publishing websites for co-writers and ghostwriters.

I don't know anything about the business. Can you explain the basics of the publishing industry to me?
Fortunately, there are millions of online and in-print resources that will tell you everything you need to know about how the business of publishing works. You can start here: www.videojug.com/interview/publishing-industry-basics, www.videojug.com/tag/finding-a-literary-agent, www.videojug.com/tag/how-to-find-a-publisher

I know a decent amount about the business. I even have a completed manuscript or nonfiction proposal. But I'm not sure whether they're at the point where I should start looking for an agent. What should I do?
When I was at a career crossroads after my first few books, I was introduced to a former literary agent, Anne Dubuisson, who'd become a publishing and writing consultant. She met with me and, because she was able to speak from the perspective of an industry insider, she was able to provide just the career guidance I needed. If you're a serious, dedicated writer who thinks you might benefit from showing your current project to someone with the eyes of an insider, if might be worth looking at her website, www.anneconsults.com.

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