Ask Suzanne a Writing Question

Monday through Friday my column appears in the online book clubs at Choose from 12 genres and each  week you can sample 2-3 chapters from a new book. It’s a free book club, sponsored by libraries around the country. Please join us at the book clubs and if you have a question about writing, I’d love to hear from you. Send your question to:

Sitting-by-poolDear Reader,

Even though I'd been writing a daily column for 11 years, when I decided to write my book, Muffins and Mayhem: Recipes for a Happy (if disorderly) Life, writing a book was a scary thought. I'm a detailed person, the sort of person who visualizes everything in her mind, before she begins. For instance, years ago one of my jobs involved event planning. I'd worked out every detail in advance, right down to where the wastebaskets would be placed. When folks put on their name tags, they'd need a place to discard the peel-off backing and a wastebasket was waiting for them.

But when I started working on a book, I had to change my mode of operation. How could I plan something that I'd never experienced before? Writing a book is a solitary process. Helpful authors, or how-to books can tell you how somebody else did it, but every author has to find their own way. I remember the frustration when I first started working on my book. I'd sent some completed chapters to my agent to review, and when he sent back his comments they were encouraging, but he also said that my writing was lacking the "down-home" Suzanne quality. So I called and asked him what he wanted me to do differently.

"I can't tell you what to do Suzanne. You're the writer. I can only tell you how I felt when I read what you'd written."

I hated my agent for a day or two. Then I moved from being upset, to a "poor Suzanne" pity party, and then I picked myself up, sat down and started writing again. This time in the "down-home" Suzanne voice.

But half-way through writing my book, I called my agent again, "I don't know what I'm doing."

And he asked, "Are you still writing?"

"Yes, Dan, I'm still writing."

"Then everything is fine, Suzanne."

You really are on your own when you write, but it sure does help when you have friends who are cheerleading for you in the stands. I can't give you a secret writing formula, but this week, in my column, I'm happy to answer writing questions from readers. I won't be able to answer everyone personally, but I'll publish some questions and answers each day.

Feel free to ask. You can reach me at:

Thanks for reading with me. It's so good to read with friends.

Happy writing, Suzanne Beecher

Book club reader Debbie J. writes...

"Suzanne, let me start off by saying that I've been subscribing to your newsletter and various genres of books, for I forget how many years. I'm envious of what you do and think it's great you're promoting libraries and new authors. The advice I'm seeking is this: I used to write endlessly, instinctively, and worry-free back when I was in school. But now at age 43, I find that though I still have that instinct and desire and soooo many ideas in my head and soooo many people still telling me how great a writer I am (even my boss raves about my emails though he seems to think I'm lagging a bit elsewhere), I find that now whenever I actually attempt to put anything creative down onto paper, or into a computer (other than emails to boss), I hit a massive, insurmountable, proverbial wall. I have become so intensely frustrated with myself for this. I SO want to write as easily as I used to....Want SO much to make a go of writing professionally as so many people have told me I should. Any advice you could offer to this end would be incredibly appreciated."

Sincere thanks and admiration—Debbie J.

Dear Debbie,

I'm smiling at this very moment because you sound like me. I too have a love/hate relationship with writing. I have to write, I want to write, deep down in my soul I need to write, but most days it doesn't come easy until I find a way to get out of the way of my writing. I've read interviews with some writers who say they've never experienced the brick writing wall. Good for them, but secretly I hate them. Notice the line I just wrote? Of course I don't really hate writers who've never faced the brick wall, but if I'm afraid to write that thought down, if I edit myself as I'm writing a first draft, concerned about, "What will people think?" then I'm getting in the way of my writing. Instead of letting the words flow through me, I'm trying to take control. When I finally do let go and get out of the way, the words come easy and they blossom. They make me laugh, they make me cry and the writing feels very good.

One of the reasons the words flow easier when you're writing to your boss is because you're envisioning yourself talking to one person. Just having a friendly conversation, only instead, you're writing it down. Use that trick when you're working on your personal writing. When you find yourself stuck, ask yourself, "Okay, Debbie, what is it that you're really trying to say?" and then start typing as if you are talking to one single person.

When fear gets in the way of my writing, I remind myself that my strength in life comes from my insecurities. Eventually I do find my way. It might take me longer than the average Joe, but I've never regretted the journey. Take it easy, Debbie, slow down, don't be afraid, and simply say what's on your mind. I'll be thinking about you.

Today's question is from Marlene...

"My writing question to you is, How do you get started writing?

I have set up the perfect place to write with a beautiful view, have all the tools ready, my favorite pens and writing pads, the computer and 'Roget's Thesaurus' at hand, a comfy pillow in the chair to ease the strain of weary bones, a cup of my favorite tea made, dog and kitty treats nearby for the inevitable interruptions.
But every time I sit down to write, all the wonderful ideas I've been thinking about for days have somehow become not write-worthy. I've taken how-to classes and read how-to books. I feel over-prepared and under-able to write anything worth reading. So I go clean the kitchen or weed the garden, tasks that I know I'm good at and that give spectacular results with a small investment of time."

Marlene in Pittsburg

Dear Marlene,

Sounds to me like "you're all dressed up with no place to go." I chuckle because I've been there. Years ago I bought the fancy pen, picked out the "just write" notebook, created a romantic writing nook, poured coffee into my favorite mug, twisted up my hair, tucked a glittery pin in it, and finally—I was ready to write. But the moment had passed, so I took a nap instead.

The window dressings in life serve a purpose. They inspire us to dream about what it would feel like to wear that gorgeous skirt on page 23 in the latest designer catalog, or what it would feel like to see our words published in a book. Those dreams keep us pushing forward, but how does a writer get started?

My advice is to forget the window dressings (for now). Grab any pen and pad of paper that's handy, rewrite the paragraph you wrote to me, word-for-word about your writing preparations, and after you finishing rewriting the last line, "So I go clean the kitchen or weed the garden, tasks that I know I'm good at and that give spectacular results with a small investment of time," ask yourself why you are good at doing those tasks, then write down your answer and keep on writing. You see, Marlene, you already 'have' started writing—don't stop now.

(By the way, I LOVE the tag line about the book clubs you use on your emails. Thanks for spreading the word. I sure do appreciate it.)

Today’s question from Debbie:

"Hi Suzanne, I've been reading the writing emails you've responded to recently and I was wondering, 'How would you go about telling someone they are NOT a writer?' Of course this would be after reading something they had written. I have a good friend who has written a book and is looking for an agent. She's also started another book. I try to encourage her to follow through and to get her book published. I've read her book and it's very much like a Harlequin Romance novel. Do you have any advice I could share with her? So good to read with you!"—Debbie

Dear Debbie,

I'm not certain from your email whether you enjoyed reading your friend's book or not. Are you wondering, in general, how to tell someone you don't think they're a writer? Or are you searching for a way to tell your friend you didn't like her book and that she shouldn't quit her day job, because she's not a writer? The good news is in either case, it's not your responsibility to tell anyone they're not a writer. Most writers, especially writers in the beginning of their careers, are thin-skinned and create enough self-doubt on their own. They don't need a friend to critique their work, they need a friend to encourage them to follow their dreams, and that's exactly what you've been doing.

Having said that, I realize when a friend asks, "What did you think of my book?" if you didn't enjoy reading it, you're in an awkward situation. Unfortunately the rule your mother taught you, "If you can't say something nice don't say anything at all," doesn't apply here, because your friend is waiting for an answer. So what do you say? You don't have to fawn over her book if you didn't enjoy reading it, but I'll bet you could find something positive to say.
Maybe you thought the title was clever, or one of the main characters reminded you of a neighbor when you were growing up, or you thought a particular plot twist was clever. Or you could simply compliment her on accomplishing her goal of writing a book.

Every writer needs a cheerleader in the background and your friend is lucky to have you.

QUESTION: Today's question is the one I'm asked most frequently. "What can I do when I'm staring at a blank page and I can't find any words?"

MY REPLY: One of the tricks I use is to just start writing without any purpose in mind. Let me share with you a "conversation" I had with myself, just the other day.

"The pen rests, the pen weeps; it knows there's a story coming.

So I exercise and stretch my muscles. Just start writing to see what comes out. No plans, just taking a trip; don't need a reservation, won't run out of gas, the supply is unlimited. The only thing I need on this trip is desire.

Start and stop, sometimes I'm on a writing high. The ideas, the emotions I'm feeling, I must get them down on paper, I can't write fast enough. Other times it's famine. No creative or comforting thoughts are within reach. Feast or famine. I complain about my writing abilities.

But perhaps I'm looking at it wrong. I moan when nothing fresh shows up, but maybe that's when it's time to dig back into the storehouse of thoughts I've accumulated. Look through my writing notes and harvest the crops. It's not cheating. I tended to them. Listened to myself, rested, planted, then took the time to let my mind wander.

Writing—it's not feast or famine, Suzanne. It's planting a crop, and then when the time is right the harvest is bountiful. I'm going to try this approach with life.

Days when I feel like nothing is coming together. Weeks without rain, but then suddenly the rain, the sun, the ideas I've planted and tended to, they grow and blossom, overnight. The things I couldn't see before are all so clear now."

Well, look at that! I thought I didn't have anything to write about.
I hope my writing trick works for you, too.

QUESTION: "I am so inspired by works of literature. Recently I have been reading through several works of Thoreau and I am in awe of his knowledge and insight into what he experiences. I have shared this with my sister and she tells me (over and over) that I should write. My issue is that with so many great authors, how do I rate at being in their shoes? Writing isn't just expression. It is expression with a vast history of thought and beauty. So I ask myself, can I express myself better than Thoreau or Homer? Will I add to the greatness of writing, or will I just add to the motion or act of writing? What are your thoughts?"—Sean

MY REPLY: Every once and a while I have a bad habit of comparing myself to other people, and you know, I can't think of one time that it's done me any good. Writing isn't about how I measure up to other authors. Look hard enough and you'll always be able to find someone who you think is more intelligent, better looking, or a more talented writer than yourself. I say this to you in kindness, Sean, I feel you're using the "how do I compare thinking" as a reason to not start writing. Almost every writer will confess there are familiar stumbling blocks they face when they begin a new writing project. In my case, there's a fear inside of me that I have to push through before I can begin. Beginning is scary to me. Where will it take me? How on earth am I going to get there? Hey, do I really know what the heck I'm doing? And yes, sometimes I fear, 'what if the words I write don't measure up?' But my writing only needs to answer to me.

Sure, it's nice when people tell me they enjoyed reading my daily column, or my book. I appreciate hearing it. But my real reason for writing is that I'm hoping when someone reads what I've written, they'll be a little easier on themselves. The reason I openly talk about my feelings, good and bad, is that I'm hoping my words will ease a pain in someone's heart, and allow them to recognize that it's okay to be themselves—whatever that might be at the moment.

Every author tells a story in their own unique voice. I suspect there's a reader patiently waiting to hear yours—start writing Sean.

Dear Reader,

This week's writing question is from Kyla, a 14 year-old who reads at our Teen Online Book Club. My column isn't featured in the teen club, instead, every week a different teenager writes the Dear Reader introduction. Next week Kyla is our writer and who knows, maybe some day soon we'll be featuring one of her books at the Online Book Club.

KYLA’S QUESTION: "Dear Suzanne, my name is Kyla and I am 14-years-old and in 9th grade. I started writing my first chapter book three years ago. It was so much fun, yet so hard that by the time I'd finished the rough draft, I decided to write another book, while I did the revising of the first one. Ever since the first idea, which came from a dream, I've been getting idea after idea, as if I had flung open the doors of my brain, and imagination called out, 'Ideas without a writer, come here! Will take anyone! No exclusions for not being fully developed because I will fix you!'

But because I have so many ideas, I have found myself writing three books at once. Do you have any tips for NOT starting another book, just because it seems better than the others at the time?' Your new bibliophilic friend,"—Kyla

MY REPLY: Kyla, you are an amazing young woman. I don't think there's anything wrong with starting a second and third book, while you're finishing the first one. But it sounds like you're frustrated because you'd like to complete one book, before starting another, which brings to mind the word, discipline. Writing is hard work. Most folks have trouble disciplining themselves to a daily writing schedule. They have the desire to write, but they never get around to actually writing. You have the discipline to write every day, but you need to find a way to follow through and finish a book.

Perhaps you could make a pact with yourself that you're going to work every day on your first book for at least 30 minutes, and only after you do that, can you bounce over to other writing projects.

Or, perhaps this is a time in your life to simply play with ideas: one, two, three, four books, play as much as you want, no pressure or guilt. And then one day, when the time is right, that little voice in your brain will say, 'Kyla, now is the time and here is the idea you've been looking for so you can finish your book.'

QUESTION: "Hi Suzanne, I've read your book and know you poured your heart out onto the paper. I enjoy writing but I feel like it's difficult to allow myself to be vulnerable. I want my writing to not be one dimensional. How does a writer know if he/she is prepared emotionally to let people in?"—Cathy

MY REPLY: When you read my column or my book, you're definitely hearing my voice and I'm sharing my thoughts and feelings. But telling the world what you're personally feeling isn't a requirement for a writer. You'll have to find your own voice, and part of that may be writing fiction. Then you could write about your feelings, but attribute them to the main characters in your story.

But I have the feeling when you finally decide to "emotionally let people in" you want them to know it's you they're reading about. Let me share some of my own writing struggles with you.

(From my book, Muffins and Mayhem: Recipes for a Happy (if disorderly) Life.)

"'What will people think?' used to be the first thing I'd think about when I sat down to write, but not anymore. If I want to give my best, I need to get to the place inside of me that's a little vulnerable. It can be scary. Give a lot, put it all out there and someone may take advantage because some people take all you have to give and give nothing back in return.

But it's worth the risk—giving a little bit of myself—because readers give the nicest, most meaningful gifts back. Readers share a story, maybe one that hasn't come to mind for years. A story about the fun things that happened when their grandfather was still alive, they remember—and I feel their laughter in between the lines they've written. Or maybe it's a confession, something they needed to say out loud, so they could ease their pain.

My strength in life comes from my insecurities. I have just enough confidence in myself and just enough doubt to write about my worries and fears, to make fun of myself, and invite people to laugh along with me. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could all feel comfortable enough to laugh at ourselves when we screw up? A laughter that stays with us, tucked away inside, instead of feeling shame? Hopefully when people read the words I write, they'll go easier on themselves and find a soft place to fall."

That single, last line explains why it's important for me to be honest about my feelings when I write. Once you figure out why it's important for you—the confidence you're looking for will follow.

QUESTION: Today's question is from Alex: "How can I become a writer?"

MY REPLY: Alex, your question reminded me of the man I met when I'd been standing in line for three hours at LaGuardia airport, waiting to get my canceled airline ticket changed. When he found out what I did for a living, he popped the familiar question. "How can I become a writer?"

I told him to go to the store, find any kind of notebook and then carefully choose a pen that makes you feel like a writer when you hold it in your hand. "Why the words will practically write themselves when you use that pen, you can just feel the inspiration.

Pay for the items—but if you happen to forget don't fret—I hear jailhouse books do well these days. Then head home and sit in a comfortable chair, open the notebook and start writing. It's really that simple."

"Just write without any purpose in mind?" my fellow wayward traveler looked a little disappointed. I think he was hoping for a writer's hush-hush secret.

"Absolutely," I replied. And I meant it. You become a writer by writing. It sounds way too simple, but it's true. The hard part of simply writing is allowing your mind to wander. My mind is full of creative ideas and interesting stories. The tricky part is how to get them down on paper. When I'm stuck, I decide to do an experiment. I start writing with no purpose in mind. I'm not debating whether the idea I'm writing about would make a good book or column, or whether it's just plain stupid. 'Who would want to read about this?' Filling your mind with questions like that chases away creativity.

Alex, the secret to becoming a writer, "Shh, simply start writing."

QUESTION: "Hi Suzanne, I use to keep a journal when I was younger and I wrote all the time. But as I have gotten older, I don't write nearly as much as I use to. I miss it and feel like I have lost my voice. I don't know how to find it. What can I do to get back to that place where my thoughts will flow, so I can write again?"—Marion

"Suzanne, how did you find your 'down home voice?'”—Donna

MY REPLY:  I didn't search for my down home writing voice. Rather it found me. Reading your questions brings tears to my eyes. I'm sure that sounds strange. But when I write without fear, when I simply say what's in my heart and I'm not worried about what other people think—my writing voice is loud and clear. It's such a sweet feeling, a gift I can give to myself and share with others. Every writer has their own voice, their own style. I'm a small town girl at heart; meat and potatoes on the table with a bottle of ketchup close by. You won't find fancy words in the things I write, because that's not me. I'm not looking for perfection—too much pressure stifles my voice. My wish is simply that when someone reads what I've written—even if it's only one person—that my words might help them go a little easier on themselves. Just let yourself 'be,' but remember, in order to find your voice you need to spend time with it. So it's important to write every day. Even if it's only for 10 minutes. Open your notebook and say hello, your voice is waiting for an invitation.

QUESTION: "Hi Suzanne, I don't have any aspirations toward writing, but I enjoy reading others. However, just out of curiosity, I had a question regarding pseudonyms. Especially some extremely popular authors, why would they write and publish under another name?" —Marion Z.

MY REPLY:  "What's in a name?" It could mean success or failure for an author. Noms de plumes and pen names, there are many reasons why authors choose to conceal their identity, especially if they're established in a particular genre. If an author's been writing thrillers, that's what their audience is expecting when they buy one of their books. If the author would also like to write Women's Fiction, changing genres might confuse some readers, alienate others, and if the author wasn't successful writing in the new genre, it could affect their career.

Age could be another reason for hiding identity. Readers might think an author's too young to write about a particular subject, or that they're too old for the younger audience they're targeting. If gender could possibly pose a marketing issue, because of the subject matter, instantly Alex is Sandra and Cathy is Martin. Or maybe the author's name just doesn't roll of the tongue easily, and a more distinctive name would make their work more memorable and marketable.

QUESTION: "Dear Suzanne, I am writing a novel (hopefully my first trilogy) and am having a writers block. How do you overcome this?"—Laryssa

MY REPLY: When the writing isn't flowing and I've convinced myself, "I can't write today," since I write a daily column "not" writing isn't an option for me. But the discipline and experience of writing every day, for the past 13 years, gives me the confidence that if I keep my fingers moving over the keyboard, even if I'm typing junk, eventually a column will appear.

So my first suggestion would be to make sure you write every day, even if it's only for 15 minutes. Your body's a quick study. When you sit down in front of your computer and put your fingers on the keys, your mind knows what it's supposed to do, because it's been in training every single day. "Hey, this feels familiar, Laryssa's ready to write, so I better do my part."

Listening to loud music is relaxing and makes me forget that writing is hard work. But loud music doesn't work for everyone. My friend, author Blaize Clement, couldn't understand how I could possibly get any work done while listening to Christopher Cross, or the Indigo Girls, because she had to have complete silence when she was writing.

Take a walk, do some gardening, sit in a coffee house and people watch—sometimes a change of scenery helps. But my all-time, never fail, way to jump start my writing is to answer a simple question. Because if I can trick myself into thinking I'm not really writing, then I can write. Sometimes I answer a friend's email, "How's it been going lately?" When I'm writing a reply, my brain thinks I'm simply answering a question, not "really" writing. And when I'm finished, I can't explain it, but my brain never catches on to the ruse, and my writing is flowing again.

Or sometimes I simply ask myself the question, "What is it that I'm trying to write about today?" and in the process of answering the question, I get back in the writing groove.

I hope this helps. Let me know if any of my tricks work for you.

QUESTION: "Suzanne, six months after my mom died, my dad also passed away. I got the idea that writing some of my [remembering] stories would be good therapy. So I enrolled in a creative writing class for guidance, inspiration, and maybe technique. Well the instructor was insistent on embellishing and making up details to make my story more interesting. I was determined to maintain accuracy, and so I allowed the instructor's opinion to squash my enthusiasm, and as a result—wrote nothing. I have only regrets about having lost my elan. What are your thoughts about this, as well as the need to be accurate to the events as they happened? My argument was that if I embellish with details that did not occur, I could never share the stories with my siblings."—Susan Grant

MY REPLY: I was so upset after reading your email that I couldn't do anything else until I'd drafted a response. First, let me say how sorry I am that you lost both of your parents, and in such a short time.

The experience with your creative writing teacher made me think back to my art class in seventh grade. Drawing or painting, it was all new to me. I'd always felt like I couldn't even draw decent stick people. So when our art teacher gave us a free-assignment, which meant we could draw anything we wanted, I drew what I guess would be considered today an abstract drawing. I don't know if abstract had been readily adopted by the art world yet, but my art teacher certainly didn't have any appreciation for the concept. In fact, she used my drawing as an example of what not to do. I didn't have any intentions when I started the assignment, I just decided to let go and see what appeared on the page. Granted, the colors and shapes on the canvas could have been construed as a jumbled mess, but not to me. I could see the clouds, the sun shining on a summer afternoon, and the pair of cardinals that had built a nest in the tree in our backyard. I was so proud of my drawing, but instead of listening to those feelings, I listened to the words my art teacher said, and of course, like you, my confidence and enthusiasm were squashed. I've never tried to draw anything again.

You haven't lost your enthusiasm, Susan, you gave it away to someone else, but it's yours, so take it back. You were one smart woman to start writing after your parents died; writing is wonderful therapy. You don't need a creative writing class for guidance or inspiration. Look into your heart Susan, and relive the moments you spent with your parents, memories you'll never forget. Write about things you enjoyed doing with them when you were a child, what you learned from them—perhaps the greatest lesson, the one that has helped you the most in your life. Write about the cake you made with your mother or father, what a disaster it was, and how you both laughed and laughed about it. You don't need to make things up about your life. Everyone's life is filled with stories that can sooth the writer's heart, and make a difference in someone else's life when they read them.

If I feel that something I've written is too ordinary, when I read it back to myself, I realize that what I may have left out are my feelings. Perhaps a better suggestion your teacher may have offered, was to tell you how wonderful it was that you'd decided to write about time spent with your parents and in your rewriting (which every writer does), to dig a little deeper and share more of your feelings.

QUESTION: "I want to write a novel, but I'm not really sure how to go about making my ideas into a book. I have a basic idea for the plot. Do I make an outline and work off that, or do I just write and let the flow of my words lead me?”—Anne M.

MY REPLY: Anne, I'm a non-fiction writer, but I asked one of my friends, who has published several novels, for advice. My friend said she never actually writes out an outline, instead she creates the outline in her mind. Lucky for her, the only way she can really let her creative mind wander, is to think about the characters in her book while she's shopping for shoes. (I really need to consider writing fiction. I love shoe shopping!) At the start of every book, my friend shops for a new pair of shoes. When she finds the perfect pair, she wears them while she's writing for at least the first week. She never does put an outline down on paper. But remember, every author has their own method of writing, and you'll discover yours. My advice is to begin, anywhere. It doesn't have to be at the beginning. If you want to write a book, the first thing you need to do, is to start writing. Have fun.

QUESTION: "Suzanne, I am working on a book about the first year of my life with my guide dog, Campbell. I'm keeping a journal about everything we do. My goal is to educate the public about guide dogs and things they do. I have always felt that you should write about what you know and from the heart. Are there any pointers you can give me about knowing what to leave in and what to leave out? How cleaned up does your work have to be before you turn it in to someone, and how do you find out about writing formats and such? Does it matter if the draft is handwritten or typed, and does it need to be single spaced, or double spaced?

I know these are a lot of different questions, but I truly do not know what I'm doing here, except that I am writing every day, and to me at least, it looks like it is coming together."—Patty

MY REPLY: Patty, you're a savvy woman when it comes to asking questions. I'm smiling when I say this. Your email reminds me of reporters at a Presidential press conference. Hoping to get lucky, they divide their one question into subsections and follow-ups. "And a follow-up to my initial question, Mr. President..." If a writing gig doesn't work out for you, you're a shoe-in for a reporting job at the Oval Office.

When I'm writing a first draft, I don't leave anything out. If I try to edit myself at that point, it causes turmoil and stifles my writing, because every sentence has to be "cleared". Is this important? Is that important? The good news is that right now, you don't need to worry about whether something is important, spelled correctly, or the commas are in the right places. Handwriting, or using the computer? Your choice. I've been carrying three notebooks with me the past two weeks. They're filled with copy for my next book. Eventually, I'll have to transcribe what I've written and get everything on my computer. But right now, I'm more inspired to write longhand.

When you submit your work to an agent, he or she will be reading to hear your "voice". Initially, when I sent my sample chapters to an agent, to see if he'd like to represent me, he told me he loved my voice and that he laughed out loud, several times. But once we started working together, everything that initially made him laugh out loud, had to be rewritten, polished, and touched up again and again and again.

Don't worry Patty, you've already conquered the most difficult task. You've started writing and you keep on writing every day. That is the secret to writing a book.

QUESTION: "Hi Suzanne, this seems like a silly question but here goes. How do I become inspired to write my book? Three years ago I was in London on vacation, and my husband and I visited a history museum neither of us had been to before. I was absolutely engrossed in one of the historical exhibits, and began reading everything I could find on that topic, and other related topics that I discovered during my reading. That led to more reading and more research, etc. I have started a blog and I've read 80 books on the original topic and related ones as well. I would like to write a book, but can't seem to narrow down a book topic out of all this data. Help!" Signed, Bewildered (Librarian, Mary Louise Fischer)

MY REPLY: Mary, you may find inspiration from reading your own writing. Let me explain. Are you writing every day? Because that's where I find inspiration and clarity about what I want to write about. You don't need to know all the answers going in, including the topic of your book. The hardest part about writing a book is looking at the blank page and starting to type. The how, what, where, when and whys....
chase those little dickens out of your mind and simply begin writing. Even if you have to start with the sentence, "I don't know what to write about, but I'm going to sit here for 15 minutes anyway, and I'm going to keep writing. I'm frustrated and confused, because I've done research and read books about the things I'm interested in, but still I can't figure out what to write about. I really enjoyed looking at the clothing exhibits in the London museum. It was so easy to imagine myself wearing the dresses I saw and I could picture what I might..."

You see, soon you'll start writing about the things you'd like to share with other people. You will begin telling a story. Start writing Mary. Write every day for one week and then go back and read what you've written. You just may find the inspiration you're looking for.

QUESTION: "How do I find an agent?"

MY REPLY: I wish I could share a "Five Ways to Secure an Agent" list, but I can't. There isn't such a beast. But I do have some suggestions.

Getting a referral from another author is at the top of my list. But it's also the most difficult thing to do. You can't simply email writers at random, asking for an out-of-the-blue referral. But you can try networking. For instance, you might join writing communities in your area to get to know published authors, and they may know someone, who knows someone. You get the idea.

Attend writing conferences and presentations by agents. At a smaller event, you might even get the opportunity to meet an agent.

Read the Acknowledgment page in a book. Most authors thank their agents.

Research agents on the Internet. Look for agents that represent your genre. Read their submission guidelines, and do exactly what they ask.

After you submit something to an agent, then comes the really hard part—waiting. You wait and wait and wait. It's painful. Excruciatingly painful. Most respectable agents will reply. If you're turned down. Keep trying. If an agent makes suggestions to you, pay attention and try again. Criticism is a gift.

You should never have to pay an agent to read your submission.

I hope these suggestions are helpful and if you’d like to see my reaction when I got my agent, click here.

QUESTION: "Dear Suzanne, I have the stories in my head, and can act them out in my mind, but I don't know how to do the dialogue between the characters, without going crazy with quote marks, when I go to write it all down. Do you have to put everything in quotes when two characters are talking, or is there another way to present the story?" — Dorie

MY REPLY: Reading your question reminded me of my "first time"—the first time I had to write dialogue and use quote marks. I'd just finished interviews for a magazine article I was working on, and when I started typing my notes, suddenly it dawned on me that I didn't know how to use quotation marks. What to do?

Most of my solutions to problems involve using common sense and I admire other people who use the same no-frills approach. For instance, NASA spent bundles of time and money developing a pen that would write upside down in space. The Russians sent their crew up with pencils. My kind of problem-solving.

Since my article was due the next day, I needed an immediate solution to my problem. So I decided to take a bubble bath and read through a "Time" magazine, carefully noting the various placement of quotation marks in sentences.

It worked. My final draft was barely touched by the editor's pen. And yes, you can "quote" me on that.

It's a cute story and it's true. But I realize that writing dialogue is tricky. A reader shouldn't be thinking about the "he said, she said" when they're reading. The conversation needs to flow naturally. There are books and classes, but my suggestion is to use one of your favorite books as a learning tool. You've read it once for enjoyment, now go back and study it for style and quotation marks. I do that with old sitcoms, like "Frasier". The first-time through is for enjoyment and laughs, the second time around, I'm studying the setup of the jokes and admiring how talented the writer was.

Practice writing conversations between characters, then read your work aloud. Listen to the flow. If you stumble, so will the reader. But not to worry, I'm sure you can do it, and you can "quote" me on that, too!

QUESTION: "Suzanne, I would like to write my life story or memoir, so some great-great grandchild could read it. I don't have a desire to be published, but I'd still like to write something worth reading. So my questions is, 'Do you have any hints about how to tell your story without coming across too cheesy, or using too many words?' I read your book, 'Muffins & Mayhem' and I enjoyed it very much. I'd say you have that gift of storytelling!"—Thanks, M.K., Milan, IL

MY REPLY: Some of the best columns I've written were the ones that woke me up in the middle of the night because I was worried that I'd shared too much. "How could I have said that in my column? What are people going to think?" But the columns that wake me up in the middle of the night, those are the ones that really seem to touch readers' hearts. So please don't worry about sounding cheesy, or that you've been too truthful about the feelings tucked away in your heart. Because that's where the "good stuff" is. It's easy to cut yourself off before you get to the good stuff, people do it every day, because fear gets in the way. They stop short before they embrace the words that might make them cry, or give them a reprieve from a burden they've been carrying far too long. So be brave and share the good stuff with your grandchildren. Your words will be a moving inspiration.

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